SHANGHAI -- To watch Michael Phelps swim the butterfly is to watch an artist. We just don't typically think of sports that way. But it's so. His stroke is beautifully fluid. It's also infused with deep family and personal meaning. The 200 fly is the race that was meant for his sister Whitney's 1996 Olympic dreams; injury stopped her short. He took over and the rest is history.
For nine straight years the man did not lose even a single 200 fly. Then, this spring, he lost three in a row, including two to China's Wu Peng, who lined up in the lane next to him Wednesday night here at swimming's world championships.
Doubters -- shame on you.
Phelps won his fifth world title in the 200 fly since 2001, and in convincing fashion, timed in 1:53.34. Japan's Takeshi Matsuda, the bronze medalist at the 2008 Beijing Games, came in second, in 1:54.01. Wu finished third, in 1:54.67.
In a sign of this country's growing strength in the sport, another Chinese, Chen Yin, took fourth, in 1:55 flat.
One night after coming up just short in the 200 free, a half-second or so behind Ryan Lochte in the 200 freestyle, Phelps not only asserted his dominance in the fly but -- in a second swim Wednesday evening -- looked sharp in qualifying, along with Lochte, for the finals of the 200 individual medley.
In the 200 fly, after he touched the final wall and looked up at the scoreboard, Phelps signaled with his right index finger -- still No. 1. Over in the stands, in another familiar scene, his mom, Debbie, and his other sister, Hilary, hugged each other.
The five titles since 2001 account for every world championships except for 2005 in Montreal; Phelps didn't swim the 200 fly there, he and his longtime coach and mentor Bob Bowman were experimenting with the 400 free, which turned out to be a bust, Phelps not even qualifying for the finals. "We were being dumb," Bowman said.
Throughout the years, Phelps has had an uncanny ability to predict his finishing times in specialties such as the 200 fly; it's like he's a human stopwatch. Talking late Wednesday evening with a handful of reporters, he said he had before coming to Shanghai written down in his journal predictions for the races here. The prediction for the 200 fly: 1:53-low, and that's what I was."
He went on, "I'm a second and a half faster than last year and I feel like I'm kind of getting back. I felt like my old self the last 100 of that race. especially over the last 25. I didn't feel like i was dying, [didn't] feel like i could barely get my arms out of the water, like there was a piano on my back.
"I felt like i was swimming for a whole 200 meters. It felt good."
It did him good, too, Bowman said.
"This one's good," Bowman said. "He needs a little balance. We need a little pat on the back."
"Weeeee I won one!" Phelps posted to his Twitter feed.
He was more elaborate at a news conference: "Having a number of defeats this year was extremely frustrating for me. I didn't like the feeling. I kind of wanted to have the feeling of winning the race again. It feels good to win a race."
A few minutes after he won, Phelps was hooked up for an appearance on NBC's "Today" show. Shanghai is precisely 12 hours ahead of New York; 8:35 p.m. here was 8:35 a.m. there, a just-right slot for Phelps to come on as part of the network's Olympic one-year-to-go show; the opening ceremony of the London Games will be on July 27, 2012.
Sometimes, it seems, things are just meant to be.
Throughout this week, Phelps has made plain that he is not in tip-top shape, at least not yet, which of course makes the win Wednesday all the more remarkable.
Phelps has also made it clear that he has seen the light -- that after months and months of sorta-kinda working out, he needs to really get after it.
If you put in the work, Phelps has said here a number of times, you actually get results.
The trigger, Bowman said Wednesday, was that first loss in the 200 fly -- after the nine years of wins -- back in April in Ann Arbor, to Wu.
"We were both very upset by that," Bowman said.
"That has sort of been my bread-and-butter event, my family's bread-and-butter event," Phelps said. To be able to get it back and keep it, I know what I have to do to be able to be where I want to be.
"I'm headed in the right direction," the exact same words he used the night before, when he came in second to Lochte, and maybe now many more people truly will believe him, because they should. He added, "I'm very pleased."