ROME, July 31 — Michael Phelps earned his third world championship gold medal Friday night, but as far as days go, there have been plenty better. Phelps was subjected to an unexpected verbal attack, stood helplessly by as he lost his second world record in 24 hours and, finally, got clobbered for the second time this week leading off a freestyle relay that ended with a gold medal for Team USA.
The bizarre story line weaved itself perfectly through another chaotic day at the swimming world championships, where six more world records fell to bring the total this week to 35. That surpassed the previous record of 29 set at the 1976 Olympics — which is best known for the steroid-enhanced performance of the East German women’s team. This one will forever be known as the competition enhanced by high-tech, long-length suits that will be banned next year.
And two more days of competition remain.
“It’s absolutely astonishing,” said Australia’s Libby Trickett. “It’s clear something in our sport has happened that is dramatic.”
The day began when one of Phelps’s biggest rivals, Serbian Milorad Cavic, stood in front of a gaggle of reporters and declared that it was a “complete lie” that Phelps was stuck swimming in an old model Speedo LZR suit while others donned faster, more high-tech models. Cavic added that “if he wants a Jaked [suit] and they don’t want to give it to him free, then I will buy it for him.”
“I’ll buy him a suit,” Phelps said hours later. “I’ve always used comments as motivation. I’ve always welcomed people saying whatever they want. ….. I try to keep most of my comments to myself to fire me up on the inside. ….. I try to just pretty much let my swimming do the talking.”
Cavic kept coming later with more jabs, only by Friday night it was his swimming, not Phelps’s, that was doing the talking. As Phelps stood by the pool watching, Cavic broke Phelps’s world record in the 100-meter butterfly semifinals.
Phelps had just swum his semifinal in 50.48 seconds, and Cavic, wearing Arena’s X-Glide suit, upped the ante with a 50.01, going 0.21 under the world record Phelps set a few weeks ago.
“He was out quick,” Phelps said. “I know tomorrow if I want to be in that race, my first 50 [meters] is going to have to be a lot closer than a second behind.”
The dizzying day for Phelps ended with this capper: He got obliterated in the opening leg of the 4×200 freestyle relay by none other than Germany’s Paul Biedermann, the swimmer who broke Phelps’s world record while beating him in the 200 freestyle final earlier in the week. That gave Phelps his other medal here: A silver.
“In your mind, if you beat him one time, you can do it again,” said Biedermann, who also wore the X-Glide. “That really motivated me and I enjoyed swimming against him.”
Phelps’s teammates once again carried him to a gold medal in a relay event, with Ricky Berens, David Walters and Ryan Lochte bringing the U.S. team home to a victory in the 800-meter free in 6 minutes, 58.55 seconds, which broke the U.S. team’s world record from the Beijing Olympics by .01 seconds. In the 4×100 free relay Sunday, Phelps had finished his lead-off leg in third place.
Phelps swam his leg in 1.44.19; Biedermann came home in 1:42.81, not quite matching the world record 1:42.00 he produced when he beat Phelps in Tuesday’s 200. But it did, once again, surpass Phelps’s previous world record of 1:42.89.
Biedermann now owns the two fastest times in history in the event.
“These guys all swam unbelievable legs,” Phelps said about his teammates. “It was a world record; it was because of these guys. I was a little over half a second off of what I went in Beijing, so I wasn’t too pleased with that, but that’s part of a team. A team is always there to back you up.”
Phelps will be on his own against Cavic Saturday night. After winning the 50 fly final earlier in the week, Cavic started his needling of Phelps by claiming that he was robbed of a victory in the photo-finish 100 fly final at last year’s Summer Games. Cavic said he touched the wall ahead of Phelps, but the touch pad failed to record it.
Cavic said he would actually prefer to race Phelps in a short suit in the 100 fly final, but knew that could not happen in this era of superfast suits.
“[It] would actually be a dream of mine, the whole final, everybody swimming in briefs,” he said.
Countered Phelps, gesturing towards his LZR: “I’m wearing this. If he wants to wear a different suit, he can throw this one on.”
The final will pit a notoriously fast starter against a notoriously fast finisher. Phelps often is among the last swimmers to touch the wall in the 100 fly. He went out in 23.87 seconds; Cavic went 1.04 seconds faster.
“He doesn’t have a great deal of speed, but he has a way of coming home,” Cavic said about Phelps. “I know he’s coming. There’s no point in even looking; Michael Phelps is right there.”
On Friday, however, Phelps was nowhere in sight.
“I’m very happy to add my name to the world-record list,” Cavic said. “There is definitely something in the air here in Rome.”