It was bound to happen someday to . But not this way and not in this race and certainly not at the hands of a relatively anonymous German swimmer with an exceedingly modest resume.
Paul Biedermann shed his anonymity only days ago when he broke a vaunted world record in the 400-meter freestyle. On Tuesday, he shed Phelps, handing the swimming icon his first loss in about four years in an individual event at a major international meet.
But Biedermann's stunning upset only brought the new, high-tech swimsuits into question again and Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, raised the stakes by saying he might pull Phelps from future international competitions if FINA doesn't act more quickly in enforcing a ban on the suits.
Phelps, a Baltimore resident, found himself in a swim reversal, becoming the guy in the rearview mirror, left behind in Biedermann's wake at the world championships at the Foro Italico sports complex. Biedermann beat Phelps by 1.22 seconds, taking away his world record in the 200-meter freestyle.
Biedermann finished in 1 minute, 42 seconds, and Phelps was second in 1:43.22. Last summer, Phelps won this race in a world-record 1:42.96 at the Olympics in Beijing and Biedermann was sixth in 1:46.
"Deep down inside, I can't be mad," said Phelps, who, understandably, looked exactly that way immediately after the loss. "I can't be disappointed. Paul swam a great race. He split that 200 free pretty much perfect. I didn't have anything in the last 50. And when he pulled away from me, I kind of got left pretty quick."
Phelps was asked the obvious question: Was he beaten by the man or the suit?
"The swimmer," said Phelps, who is almost old-school in still wearing Speedo's LZR Racer.
Bowman wasn't so sure.
"I don't want to put him in this situation again," he said of Phelps. "I want swimming to go back to racing on a level playing field. I want it to happen as soon as possible. And the move to do it in April is unacceptable. It needs to happen Jan. 1, if not next Monday."
Biedermann, who is wearing the controversial high-tech suit made by the Italian company Arena, has dropped six seconds in the 200 freestyle since 2007, mirroring his progress in the 400 freestyle. On Sunday, he served notice he would threaten Phelps by winning the 400 freestyle and breaking Ian Thorpe's long-held world record in that event.
"I hope there will be a time I can beat without the suit, of course," Biedermann said. "And I hope it will be the next year or the next two years. But it's not all about the suit.
"It's not my problem," he added. "It's not the problem of Arena, my sponsor. It's the problem of FINA. They should handle it really fast. I hope just before 2010."
Fast and FINA do not belong in the same sentence.
The Phelps loss and four more world records - making it 15 in three days - came against a backdrop of activity on the swimsuit front by FINA, the governing body of swimming. World records, in addition to Biedermann's, came in the women's 100 backstroke, the men's 50 breaststroke and the women's 200 freestyle. Rebecca Soni, who set the world record Monday in the semifinals of the 100 breaststroke, won the final in 1:04.93.
Earlier Tuesday, the FINA bureau approved regulations banning the likes of the new-generation Arena suits but threw the sport into more chaos by saying the changes might not occur until April.
That prompted Bowman to say the sport is in "shambles," and to call upon FINA to move quickly, saying: "They're going to lose their guy who fills these seats."
That means Phelps, the winner of 14 Olympic gold medals.
Keeping Phelps, the name in swimming, out of meets would be the ultimate hammer.
"He might do some local meets, but as far as trying to do anything on this level, I think they may be waiting," Bowman said. "Enough is enough. I mean, come on."
Phelps will undoubtedly go along with Bowman's wishes, and he said as much in his post-race news conference. He lamented the way swimming has been viewed the past few years, speaking of the technology arms race.
"It's changed the sport completely," Phelps said.
"Now it's not swimming. The headlines are always who's wearing what suit. It's not swimming. I'm looking forward to the day that we're able to call our sport swimming again."
The anger is not confined to the United States. Australian coach Alan Thompson acknowledged the power Phelps could have in the matter.
"You know the people with the greatest leverage are the athletes," he said.
"Us coaches have been banging our heads against the brick wall for a long time."
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