STOCKHOLM, Nov. 10—Michael Phelps had the strangest thought as he walked out to the starting blocks for his third morning preliminary race at this FINA/Arena World Cup. He was performing so poorly, it was possible that he might not advance to the meet’s evening finals, something he hadn’t done in more than 10 years.
Three months after winning five gold medals at the world championships in Rome, Phelps, 24, found himself in the midst of the worst morning of his professional swimming career, and he didn’t care to see his entire workday end at just past noon.
“Coming into the individual medley [heats], I’m thinking, ‘I’m 0 for 2; let’s see if I go 0 for 3 today,’” Phelps said later.
Phelps did not, to his relief and that of organizers who sold tickets to the night session assuming Phelps would be stepping onto the starting blocks a few times. After finishing 16th in the heats of the 100-meter freestyle with a time of 47.77 seconds and getting disqualified in the 100 backstroke (where his time of 52.47, even if allowed, would have ranked only 15th), he sneaked into the final of the 100 individual medley final with a seventh place.
And then, Tuesday night, competing out of Lane 1, he earned himself a bronze medal with his finish in 52.14.
Even that performance at the Eriksdalsbadet swim center, however, was not up to the standard of the most accomplished swimmer in the sport’s history, an athlete who rarely finishes second in any event.
“Michael has had so many meets where he was unbelievably good in everything he swam; it was like magic,” said his longtime coach Bob Bowman. “He needs to have a meet where everything goes wrong, and deal with it.”
Tuesday offered that unpleasant opportunity. Phelps couldn’t think of a more awful swimming experience, except perhaps his first U.S. senior nationals in 1999, when as a trembling 14-year-old he was so awed about the caliber of competition he did not qualify for any finals.
He blamed Tuesday’s performance on not being sufficiently fit and failing to adapt to the increased number of turns in short-course meters (25-meter pools instead of 50), events in which he has rarely competed. Bowman acknowledged that Phelps’s choice of swimwear – he wore a textile, waist-to-knee “jammer” rather than a long, high-tech model that will be banned as of Jan. 1 – likely contributed, and U.S. officials who declined to be identified because they did not wish to appear to be poor sports said it was the suit choice, period, that slowed Phelps.
“I know I’m not in the best shape,” Phelps told Swedish television immediately after the race. “I should be in better shape. I’m happy I could get a second swim. The first two races this morning were a little quick.”
Phelps said a month ago he wanted to make a statement by ditching his high-tech suit even before the ban went into effect, and he surely did — though this was probably not exactly the statement he had in mind. He and two other top-ranked men lined up for the 100 free heats wearing jammers, and all posted abysmal times, relatively speaking.
Phelps’s 47.77 earned 16th; Frenchman Amaury Leveaux, the world-record holder in the event, finished 38th overall in 49.17. And France’s Fabien Gilot, who had the second-fastest qualifying time, finished 56th in 50.08. In another stacked field in the 100 backstroke, Phelps was disqualified for swimming more than the allowable 15 meters underwater off the second turn.
Besides Phelps, only the North Baltimore Aquatic Club’s Liz Pelton, 15, who like Phelps wore Speedo’s old FS-Pro, advanced to the night’s finals wearing a textile suit. Pelton finished eighth in the 200 backstroke in 2:07.91.
More inspiring nights came from a trio of USA Swimming youth team members who claimed medals at the first of two World Cups this week, events they are attending to gain big-meet experience and learn from Phelps, the team’s official mentor.
Melissa Franklin, 14, a high school freshman in Aurora, Colo., won silver in the 200 individual medley in 2:07.16 behind Spain’s Mireia Belmonte (2:06.44); Amber McDermott, 16, a high school junior, claimed the bronze in the women’s 800 freestyle in 8:24.83 — well behind Denmark’s Lotte Friis (8:07.94) and Kristel Kobrich (8:09.25) — but good enough to produce the first U.S. medal of the night.
Kyle Whitaker, 18, a high school senior, claimed third in the 400 individual medley in 4:08.15, also well behind the top two — Britain’s Joseph Roebuck got first in 4:03.29 and South Africa’s Chad Le Clos got second in 4:04.19.
Both McDermott and Whitaker wore Speedo’s LZR, Team USA’s standard-issue suit; Franklin, the team’s youngest member, competed in the Jaked she used at the junior national championships this summer.
“My goal at this meet was to get top eight in one event,” Franklin said. “To medal is really exciting. I can’t believe it.”
With his two first swims, Phelps matched the number of times since 2002 he has not advanced out of morning preliminaries. The only other times came at the ‘07 U.S. national championships, when he finished 11th in the 200 breaststroke — definitely not a specialty — and when he was 18th in the 400 freestyle, another non-specialty, at the 2005 world championships in Montreal.
Bowman and Phelps agreed on this: the performance would motivate him as he continued to train for the 2012 Summer Games.
“I think for them to struggle sometimes, it helps them learn how to overcome things,” Bowman said. “I think one of the things the suits have given people was this way to instantly get results. That’s not the way the sport works … We’re all ‘suit’-ed out. We made our decision to do this [not wear the high-tech suit] and it’s painful in the short term. In the long term, it will be good for us. That’s what swimming used to be about: Delayed gratification.”
In other events, Australian Felicity Galvez won the 100 butterfly in a world-record time of 55.46 seconds; China’s Zhao Jing set her second world record of the day in the 50 backstroke, finishing in 25.82 after going under the world-record time in the preliminaries; and Brazil’s Kaio Almeida set a world record in the 200 butterfly (1:49.11).
American Peter Marshall, the current leader in the men’s World Cup standings, claimed the 100 backstroke title with a time of 49.29; Sweden’s Stefan Nystrand won the men’s 100 free in 45.54, topping Canada’s Brent Hayden (45.75) and Russian Danila Izotov (45.87).
Australia’s Leisel Jones, meantime, just missed her world record in the 100 breaststroke, finishing in 1:03.74, just .02 off the mark she set last year.
Phelps competes in two events here Wednesday, then heads to Berlin for another World Cup this weekend.
After wearing the full-body suits and going to a jammer, Phelps said, “you kind of feel almost naked on top. It’s something we’re all going to have to get used to wearing in the next six weeks. It’s good for me to start now.”
Tags: Michael Phelps