Michael Phelps on Wednesday got by, and then some, with a little help from his friends.
He usually doesn’t lose when it counts, and no one was really quite sure how to handle it as the swimming world seemed to spin off its axis Tuesday when Phelps lost an individual event at a major meet for the first time in four years. Paul Biedermann of Germany won the 200-meter freestyle -- and broke Phelps’ world record.
His yell buddies provided the kind of support you can’t find on the swim deck.
“I got a bunch of friends that texted me last night and said, ‘If you want to, call and just yell at me on the phone and get some frustration out. I have no problems sitting here listening,’ ” Phelps said, smiling.
Shouting-out therapy -- or maybe it was rage against the FINA machine -- paid off less than 24 hours later at the world championships when Phelps returned to an old favorite, the 200 butterfly, going 1 minute 51.51 seconds to beat his own world record by 0.52 seconds. He has held the record in the event since 2001.
His longtime coach, Bob Bowman, had a sense of the moment, detecting the shift in the swimmer’s mood.
“You can always tell when something like this is kind of going to happen, and he was definitely there tonight,” Bowman said of Phelps, who was more relaxed at the pool of the sports complex at the Foro Italico -- unlike Tuesday.
“It was more intense, like really too intense,” Bowman said of Tuesday’s competition. “He was like ready for a death match, which it was.”
This time, Phelps found another way, and another suit, to get where he needed to be. The world record he set was one of seven on Day 4 of the meet, bringing the total to 22 records. One of the records set Wednesday was by American Mary DeScenza, who dropped three seconds off her personal-best time, going 2:04.14 in the 200 butterfly preliminaries.
In Phelps’ case, he had accidentally grabbed the wrong suit and felt uncomfortable in the pre-race warmup. He decided not to wear the Speedo full-body suit, only the leggings from the waist to the ankles.
He said that decision was not a shot at FINA, which oversees the sport and has been at the center of the high-tech swimsuit controversy, but an issue of comfort.
“Coming into tonight, I said, ‘I’m just going to go for it and whatever happens, happens,’ ” Phelps said. “I put it all in the first 150 and tried to get into as much open water as I can. And then come off the last wall and hang on.”
Said Bowman: “He told me before the race, ‘I’m going to step on it in the third 50 and not back off.’ I said, ‘Go for it.’ When he has a plan, you just always go with it. He knows what he’s doing.”
Bowman and Phelps exchanged a warm embrace in the mixed zone where swimmers meet with the media. It was a tumultuous 24 hours for the two of them after Phelps lost the race to Biedermann, who wore one of the newest high-tech suits.
The loss prompted Bowman to threaten to keep Phelps out of international meets until the suit controversy is resolved. FINA has issued rules limiting the size of swimsuits and their material, confining it to textile, although it has not yet issued a definition of textile or a definitive timetable. The rules are to take effect in 2010.
But Bowman fears the uncertainty could ruin next season and disrupt not only Phelps but the rest of his program at North Baltimore Aquatic Club. “I would just like to know this is going to happen before the middle of next year,” he said of FINA’s implementing the new rules. “Then we wait until April and they say, ‘No, it’s going to be August.’ By the time that occurs, we’re pretty far down the road trying to get ready for meets.”
Phelps may be the trump card in the controversy. Bowman said they are thinking of entering Phelps in World Cup meets this fall in Stockholm and Berlin. A continued FINA delay regarding the banned suits could put that on hold, as well as Phelps’ participation in the much-anticipated Duel in the Pool in England in December.
USA Swimming General Manager Mark Schubert met with a top FINA official Wednesday and discussed the timetable. “He said to trust him that this would be done well before May,” Schubert said of Cornel Marculescu, FINA’s executive director. “He said that he hoped I would talk to Michael and assure him the issue would be settled.”
Bowman revealed he had been tempted to have Phelps try a high-tech suit in practice.
“Just so I would know in my mind what the difference was,” Bowman said. “But then I said, no, once he finds out, it might just create a conflict.”
Schubert used the word “chaos” to describe the unsettled atmosphere at the meet.
“I had a girl come up to me today and say, ‘I’ve just had it,’ ” he said. “ ‘Will you go please find me this suit?’ We’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off.”
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World records set Wednesday at the World Swimming Championships in Rome:
Michael Phelps, U.S.: 200 butterfly, 1:51.51.
Cameron van der Burgh, South Africa: 50 breaststroke, 26.67.
Zhang Lin, China: 800 freestyle, 7:32.12.
Mary DeScenza, U.S.: 200 butterfly, 2:04.14.
Daniela Samulski, Germany: 50 backstroke, 27.39.
Anastasia Zueva, Russia: 50 backstroke, 27.38.
Federica Pellegrini, Italy: 200 freestyle, 1:52.98.