This all started with an equipment malfunction in the morning relay and ended with the favored French sprinters wilting again, giving Michael Phelps and friends another riveting victory in the 400-meter freestyle relay.
In between, there were world records tumbling and falling on Day 1 of the world championships. Six fell Sunday night, including one widely considered untouchable, Ian Thorpe’s 400-meter freestyle record, as well the oldest women’s mark on the books, the 100 butterfly.
It’s just too bad the world championships are so dull.
“All the athletes in the back are saying it’s crazy,” said Dara Torres. “Unfortunately, you have to wear these suits to keep up with everyone, but it’ll be great when they go back and you’ll really see who the swimmers are.”
The controversial high-tech suits will be put in dry dock -- but not until 2010. For now, it’s a frenzied grab-fest of records at the swim bazaar. Get these records while you still can.
Paul Biedermann of Germany sounded an almost apologetic note after winning in 3 minutes 40.07 seconds, besting Thorpe’s 2002 mark of 3:40.08. Biedermann’s previous best had been 3:43.01, which came in the morning preliminaries.
“The suit makes me really fast, almost two seconds [faster] in the race,” he said. “I hope next year we can go back to normal.”
The new normal in swimming is deeply unsettling. Even for the winners.
Biedermann, who was wearing the Italian Arena suit, said he thinks the suits “are destroying a little bit the sport.”
Said Torres, who was on the U.S. women’s 400 freestyle relay, which took fourth: “Even if it was me out there breaking a world record, I don’t think I’d be jumping for joy. I know even though I’m a good swimmer -- some of it is because of the suit.”
One of the world records, in the semifinals of the 200 individual medley, came from an unexpected source, 20-year-old Ariana Kukors of Seattle, who didn’t even qualify for the event at U.S. nationals. She finished third at Indianapolis and got in when teammate Elizabeth Pelton withdrew from the 200 IM because of a program conflict in Rome.
Kukors went 2:07.03; the previous world mark had been set by Stephanie Rice of Australia, in 2:08.45.
And, yes, Kukors will be taking care of Pelton.
“Oh my gosh, I’m taking her out to a really nice dinner or something,” Kukors said. “I owe her big. I will definitely be her biggest fan for the next couple of events.”
Italian fans received an emotional payoff with a world-record performance from national star Federica Pellegrini, who won the 400 freestyle in 3:59.15.
She won by 1.45 seconds, defeating British stars Jo Jackson and Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington, who took second and third, respectively.
The closest-contested men’s final of Day 1 did not even feature a world record in the 400 freestyle relay. Even swimmers from other countries were all but handing the win to the vaunted French foursome because the U.S. team was without Olympic hero Jason Lezak, who is competing in Israel.
“We pretty much had a new relay,” Phelps said of his teammates Ryan Lochte, Matt Grevers and anchor Nathan Adrian. “When we come into a meet we have a goal to win all three relays. This is a perfect way to end Day 1.”
That U.S. foursome almost didn’t get the chance to swim in the final. In the morning prelims, Ricky Berens’ suit, by the Italian company Jaked, split in the back when he leaned over to stretch after getting on the blocks.
“I kind of freaked out for a second,” Berens said.
Showing some skin took on new meaning here. Of course, Berens is hoping he won’t become a YouTube cult hero after completing the exposed swim.
“It felt like there was a bunch of extra weight around like a bag of water,” he said. ". . . I was trying hard not to focus on the suit. I’ve never ripped a suit before.”
Said Lochte: “I would have been, like, ‘Whatever.’ I would have swam naked if I had to. I mean, you’re at the world championships, you can’t really hold anything back.”
Phelps wasn’t entirely pleased by his leadoff leg of 47.78, which put the United States in third after the opening 100.
Lochte (47.03) kept them in third but cut into the deficit. Grevers (47.61) got the Americans into second and Adrian’s sizzling anchor (46.79) secured the victory.
The United States won in 3:09.21, the surprising Russians were 0.31 behind and France took third.
Lezak’s sensational anchor leg at the Olympics in Beijing helped take down the French team last summer.
“On paper, they’re faster,” Lochte said. “But paper doesn’t really matter when you step on the blocks. What it comes down to is racing. Honestly, I feel like we can go up against anyone.”
Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, called Adrian “the future of our relays,” and was visibly excited about the promise of the four working together, and watching them pick up Phelps when he wasn’t necessarily at his best.
“I love it,” Bowman said. “The best thing about this relay is they carried Michael. That’s what we need. We need other people to step up.”
Phelps, who will swim three individual races here, had a mature two-word answer when asked whether the other three swimmers carried him.
“They did,” he said, smiling.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
World records set Sunday at the World Swimming Championships in Rome:
Paul Biedermann, Germany: 400 freestyle final, 3:40.07.
Sarah Sjostrom, Sweden: 100 butterfly semifinal, 56.44.
Ariana Kukors, United States: 200 individual medley semifinal, 2:07.03.
Federica Pellegrini, Italy: 400 freestyle final, 3:59.15.
Britta Steffen, Germany: 100 freestyle (leadoff leg of 400 freestyle relay), 52.22.
Netherlands: 400 freestyle relay, 3:31.72.
-- Lisa Dillman