Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Coach threatens to pull Phelps
ROME -- Michael Phelps sure looked out of place.
After bending over to accept a medal he wanted no part of, then listening to another swimmer's national anthem, Phelps tried to make his getaway. Not so fast -- there were still pictures to take.
So he straggled back to the top step of the awards stand, the place he knows so well. This time, it was already occupied. Phelps stood off to the side while Paul Biedermann was the center of attention and photographers snapped away.
The unheralded German pulled off one of swimming's greatest upsets when he beat Phelps in the 200-meter freestyle at the world championships Tuesday, also snatching his world record.
But no one thought this was a fair fight. In yet another twist to the never-ending saga over high-tech swimsuits, Biedermann acknowledged that his polyurethane version gave him an edge over Phelps, who stuck with his once-revolutionary LZR Racer. Phelps' coach even threatened to pull his star from future international meets unless the governing body acts with more urgency to get rid of suits that have rendered the record book obsolete.
"The suits make a difference," Biedermann said. "I hope there will be a time when I can beat Michael Phelps without these suits. I hope next year. I hope it's really soon."
Phelps can't wait.
"It's going to be fun next year," he said, "when swimming is back to swimming."
Phelps took his first major individual loss in four years, doled out by a swimmer barely known outside his country until he got to Rome. In the space of three days, the 22-year-old German wiped Ian Thorpe's name out of the record book in the 400 free, then he took down the winningest Olympian with a time of 1 minute, 42.00 seconds, nearly a second faster than Phelps' 1:42.96 at Beijing.
"Biedermann just took off," Phelps said. "He took it to a new level in that race."
But how much was the man? How much was the suit?
Biedermann wore an Arena X-Glide, which has taken its place alongside the Jaked suit as the fastest thing on water. Yes, even faster than Speedo's once-heralded suit, which battered the record book in 2008 but was surpassed by attire that's even more buoyant, allowing the swimmer to glide along the top of the water with less resistance.
Shortly before the race, FINA confirmed that a ban on bodysuits will go into effect next year, making this the last major competition where such suits are allowed. It will take effect by May 2010.
Not soon enough for Phelps' coach.
"We've lost all the history of the sport. Does a 10-year-old boy in Baltimore want to break Paul Biedermann's record?" Bob Bowman said after the race. "The sport is in shambles right now and they better do something or they're going to lose their guy who fills these suits."
Biedermann acknowledged after his 400 free win that the suit made him two seconds faster, but Phelps passed on the chance to wear one of the latest-generation suits. He's been sponsored by Speedo since he was a teenager and wasn't about to abandon the company that paid him a $1 million bonus after he won eight gold medals in Beijing.
A business decision that had nothing to do with Biedermann. He just went out in the best suit he could find, then beat the best.
"It's not my problem," Biedermann said. "It's the problem of FINA. They should handle it really fast."
Phelps was ahead off the blocks, but Biedermann surged into the lead by the first flip and steadily extended his advantage. By the finish, he was a full body length ahead of Phelps.
While Biedermann hung on the lane rope, thrusting his right hand in the air, Phelps stared at the scoreboard for a few seconds before heading off in the opposite direction, not even bothering to shake hands with the swimmer who had just handed him his first big individual loss since July 30, 2005.
That night, Ian Crocker beat Phelps in the 100 butterfly at the world championships in Montreal. Bouncing back from that disappointment, Phelps went 5-for-5 in his individual events at the 2007 worlds in Melbourne, then duplicated the feat at Beijing, where three relay wins gave him an iconic sporting achievement.
"Theoretically, that was a pretty good swim for me, three-tenths off my best time after taking six months off," said Phelps, referring to his layoff after the Olympics. "I mean, I'm not happy, but I mean I know I didn't train much this year. For right now, I'll take it.
"But I'm not pleased."
That was obvious from the awards ceremony, where Phelps went through some forced poses with Biedermann and bronze medalist Danila Izotov of Russia. When the three of them headed off around the pool deck together, the winner danced for the German fans, while Phelps managed a few weak smiles.
Finally, Phelps climbed toward the stands to drop off a stuffed mascot with his mother, Debbie, who leaned over to give him a consoling hug. Before her son even left the pool deck, he pulled off his silver medal, as if he wanted no part of a consolation prize.
Phelps did come back about an hour later to qualify for the final of the 200 butterfly on what figures to be his toughest day of the meet. He posted the second-fastest time in the semifinals, just 13-hundredths behind Japan's Takeshi Matsuda. The final is Wednesday night, a chance for Phelps to get back on the top step of the podium.
Biedermann's upset launched another night of record breaking at the world championships. Four more world standards were bumped from the books, bringing the total to 15 through the first three days of an eight-day meet. That equals the number of records set at the last worlds in Melbourne two years ago, and will soon go right on past the staggering 25 worlds marks set last summer at the Olympics.
Britain's Gemma Spofforth went the fastest ever to win the 100 backstroke; Italy's Federica Pellegrini fired up the home crowd with her second world record of the championships in a semifinal heat of the 200 free; and South Africa's Cameron van der Burgh posted his own mark in the semis of the 50 breaststroke, a non-Olympic event.
American Rebecca Soni won the 100 breaststroke though she came up just short of her record time in the semifinals. Soni touched in 1:04.93, nine-hundredths off the mark from the previous day. Russia's Yuliya Efimove took silver and American Kasey Carlson was third.
Taking advantage of Aaron Peirsol's shocking elimination in the semifinals of the 100 back, Japan's Junya Koga captured the world title in 52.26. Peirsol went faster than that (51.94) in setting a world record this month, but all he could do was watch from the stands as Koga ended his reign as three-time champion. Helge Meeuw of Germany won silver and Spain's Aschwin Grigoriadis claimed the bronze.
Italy's Alessia Filippi won the 1,500 free, another event that's not on the Olympic program. Denmark's Lotte Friis won silver and Romania's Camelia Potec took the bronze.
Spofforth rallied in the 100 back to win in 58.12, beating the mark of 58.48 set a day earlier by Anastasia Zueva. The Russian also went under her old mark (58.18) but it was only good enough for silver this time. Australia's Emily Seebohm took the bronze.
While Phelps still has four more events at these world championships, he's already looking toward another shot at Biedermann.
"Hopefully," Phelps said, "next summer we'll be able to really go head-to-head and I'll be in jammers."