Success, frustration for Coughlin, Phelps

Times Staff Writer

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- One American record tumbled Friday night and only a brave person would have suggested to Natalie Coughlin that it was because of her Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit.

After all, Coughlin managed to set other records in unworldly gear before breaking her U.S. mark in the 100-meter freestyle, going 53.39 seconds at the Santa Clara International Invitational. She finished second to fast-rising 15-year-old Australian star Cate Campbell's 53.30, a result ending Coughlin's seven-year winning streak in the event at this meet.

Later, Michael Phelps won the 400 individual medley in 4:13.47. His irritation was visible afterward, saying he was "not happy" and declared his backstroke in the medley, and in general, has been "absolutely horrible the last few meets."

That bulletin amounts to a mini-crisis in the Phelps camp, which sounds almost silly for the swimmer who won six gold medals at the 2004 Olympics. His coach, Bob Bowman, echoed Phelps' displeasure, saying: "I'm certainly not thrilled with 4:13."

The crux of the problem? Phelps and Bowman agreed the tempo of the backstroke is too slow.

"I know what's wrong with it," Bowman said. "He needs to pick up his stroke. When the coach asks you to pick it up, do it instead of thinking maybe you don't need to."

Said Phelps: "The backstroke isn't there. It's frustrating in a year like this where it's so big, an Olympic year."

Still, there is plenty of time for Phelps and Bowman to tinker with the backstroke in the swim lab with the U.S. Olympic trials about six weeks away.

Six weeks amounts to a lifetime of questions about the high-tech LZR if you ask Coughlin. She has grown suit weary. Or, you might say, suit-saturated.

This is even though she has a Speedo endorsement deal and worked closely with the company in the various development stages of the high-tech product.

"The hype surrounding it is very irritating," Coughlin said. "I'm so glad it's successful. But it's like almost too much."

Success has meant the suit has been firmly in the news since world records started falling with amazing frequency since February. It hit another level this week when TYR Sport filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the parent company of Speedo, as well as USA Swimming and its head coach Mark Schubert, alleging a conspiracy between the defendants to steer athletes to Speedo.

USA Swimming's executive director Chuck Wielgus issued a statement Friday, saying his organization had reviewed the legal documents, adding: "While we cannot comment on pending litigation, it is important to note that USA Swimming does not dictate which brand of personal competitive gear our national team athletes wear. Rather, U.S. athletes are free to wear their preferred brand of suit, cap and goggles.

"We hope that this matter can be resolved quickly so that all athletes currently preparing for the U.S. Olympic trials can be free from this unfortunate distraction."

Additionally, FINA announced that there would be one final opportunity for manufacturers manufactures such as Nike, Arena and Diana to get their suits approved by swimming's international governing body.

The meeting will be June 3 in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the U.S. Olympic trials start June 29 in Omaha.


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