STOCKHOLM, Nov. 11 — At last year’s Olympic Games, Michael Phelps won eight gold medals in eight races. At this summer’s world championships, he took five golds and one silver in six races.
At this two-day FINA/Arena World Cup in Stockholm, Phelps faced some – but not nearly all – of the world’s best swimmers. He finished with one silver (in a race he lost by more than two seconds), one bronze, an 11th, a 16th, and a 15th place that got wiped out by a disqualification.
A year after becoming, without question, the most accomplished swimmer in history, and three months after reaffirming that position, Phelps could not, for the most part, keep pace. At this short-course (25-meter pool) event at the Eriksdalsbadet swim center, he looked slow, at least relative to the people swimming by him.
He showed up here in a textile, waist-to-thigh “jammer” hoping to give it a go against competitors outfitted in the long, sleek, high-tech suits that have contributed to more than 200 new world records in the last two years.
But Phelps did more watching than competing. (He also did a lot of gracious and enthusiastic clapping for his rivals in his only trips to the medals stand.) In seven years prior to this meet, he had failed to qualify for evening finals only twice, once in 2005 and once in ‘07. In two days here, he missed the cut for finals three times.
“That’s proof in the pudding right there, when Michael Phelps isn’t making the finals because he isn’t wearing one of these suits,” said Australia’s Andrew Lauterstein, who won the bronze in the 100-meter butterfly in 49.54, wearing a borrowed Arena model.
Lauterstein also said: “I don’t care how good you are, if you don’t wear a suit, you’re not going to be competitive.”
Phelps declined to discuss the suits, instead blaming his overall performance on not being in top shape after taking a month off to nurse a fractured foot back to health. However, he also claimed not to be in peak shape during the world championships in Rome this summer after having taken five months off after the Olympics. And there, besides bringing home a pile of medals, he set the world record in the 100 butterfly in a 50-meter pool.
It was in that event Wednesday that Phelps could manage only 11th place, finishing in 51.06 seconds. After failing to qualify for the finals of a pair of individual events he has never swum in the Olympics, the 100 freestyle and 100 backstroke, Wednesday’s defeat came in one of his strongest events.
Phelps came back later and, against a less competitive field, advanced to the 200 individual medley final by tying for the second-fastest qualifying time (1 minute, 56.09 seconds). Then he concluded his meet by getting crushed in the final by South African Darian Townsend, the 11th-place finisher in the event at last year’s Games.
The technical-suit-clad Townsend beat Phelps to the wall by 2.14 seconds.
Phelps, who finished in 1:53.93, held the fastest qualifying time by nearly three seconds in the event.
“I knew that this wasn’t going to be the best meet,” Phelps said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be the happiest camper ever. Now and then you need a little wake-up call … I don’t want to swim just okay. If I want to swim better than okay, there has to be changes.”
The changes Phelps had in mind, he said, had to do with the “consistency” in his training. But there will be other changes, too: Only textile, waist-to-knee suits for men will be allowed after Jan. 1. Women will be allowed neck-to-knee models.
Phelps will take his jammer to Berlin Friday and Saturday for another World Cup meet, and he also intends to compete at a four-nation meet in Manchester, England in mid-December, where he could be facing a few more rough days in the water.
Swimmers here dismissed his performance as a suit-inflicted aberration.
“Michael is Michael,” French world-record holder Amaury Leveaux said. “If he takes a full swimsuit, I think he is still the best.”
Leveaux and a few other competitors — largely from the United States and France, where the suits already have been banned — also wore short, textile suits and struggled mightily for the second straight day.
In the heats of the 200 freestyle, Leveaux, fellow Frenchmen Fabien Gilot and Gregory Mallet wore jammers and finished six, seven and six seconds, respectively, above their qualifying times in 46th, 51st and 54th places. Wearing briefs in the heats of the 50 backstroke, Frenchman Pierre Roger finished two seconds above his qualifying time, and 37th overall.
“In short-course, the start, the turns, the kicks, in the water it goes really fast,” Roger said. “The suits change everything. It’s not the same sport … It’s not the same swimming, it’s not the same effort. Everything is so different.”
In other news, American Jessica Hardy set a world record in the morning heats of the 50 breast (28.96), the fifth world record she has set since the summer, and Stanford grad Peter Marshall set a world record in the 50 backstroke (22.73), lowering the mark he set three weeks ago. China’s Liu Zige set a world best in the 200 fly (2:02.50) while Zhao Jing got the world record in the 100 medley (58.40). Sweden’s Therese Alshammar finished the night by setting a world record in the 50 fly in 24.46.
But it was Phelps’s stunning performance here, not the five world records set Wednesday, that cast the largest spotlight on the suits.
“One of the positive things that will come out of this meet is it will give you another picture of what the suits really do,” said Phelps’s coach Bob Bowman, who called the suits one of a number of factors, including Phelps’s fitness, that affected his performance. “This shows you the true textile suit, low profile, the difference between that and [the long, technical suits]. It’s substantial.”
Andrew Cosgarea, North Baltimore Aquatic Club
26th, 400 free, 3:53.78; 15th, 400 medley, 4:26.44; 8th, 1,500 free, 15:16.03
Steven Hill, QDD Swimming
48th, 100 fly, 57.51; 45th, 200 free, 1:49.70; 62nd, 50 free, 23.59; 63rd, 100 free, 50.63; 22nd, 400 free, 3:52.46
Felicia Lee, NBAC
26th, 50 fly, 27.63; 10th, 200 fly, 2:10.12; 12th, 100 fly, 58.81
Emily Lloyd, SPY Swimming
40th, 100 free, 55.68; 33rd, 50 back, 29.55; 22nd, 50 free, 25.31
Todd Patrick, NBAC
9th, 400 medley, 4:13.18; 34th, 200 free, 1:47.04; DQ, 100 medley; 14th, 200 medley, 1:59.40
Liz Pelton, NBAC
30th, 50 fly, 27.97; 17th, 100 back, 1:00.44; eighth, 200 back, 2:07.91; 27th, 100 fly, 1:01.61; 17th, 200 medley, 2:14.09