BARCELONA -- The world after Michael Phelps gets underway here shortly in sun-splashed Spain, or at least that part that everyone outside serious swim geeks would be inclined to pay attention to, the 2013 swimming world championships, and from all over the globe they sought Friday both to downplay expectations while asserting that quite naturally the point in racing is to win. "It's kind of a down year but everyone is getting ready to race," American Matt Grevers, the London Games 100 meters backstroke gold medalist, said, summing it up perfectly in just one short sentence.
This classic wanting-to-have-it-both-ways is the result of several factors:
It's the year after the Olympic year. Some people are in tip-top shape and others, well, maybe not so much. The thing about swimming is it has no pity. It reveals who has put in the work.
That's what Phelps understood during and after the world championships in Shanghai in 2011, and -- candidly -- what these championships are likely to show, indeed what the build-up to this meet already has made plain. American Allison Schmitt, who won five medals last summer in London, including gold in the 200 freestyle, her signature event, didn't make the 2013 team.
"She hasn't trained very much," her coach, Bob Bowman -- who is of course Phelps' longtime mentor as well and is the U.S. men's coach here -- told reporters at the time. He also tweeted a quote from the Chinese master Lao Tzu, "I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures."
As these Barcelona championships unfold, with the U.S. team's 31 medals from London now just numbers in the history books, with Russian sprinter Vlad Morozov throwing down times like 47.62 in the 100 free just a couple weeks ago at the University Games -- simplicity, patience and compassion might be the watchwords for many.
Then again, the U.S. might rise up as it usually does.
The 2013 U.S. world team is made up of veterans such as Ryan Lochte, Nathan Adrian, Natalie Coughlin and Dana Vollmer, breakout stars such as Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky and a whole bunch of newcomers -- eight national team rookies on the 51-person roster.
Phelps -- he of the 22 Olympic medals, 18 gold -- is of course playing golf. He has said many times that he is doing so contentedly.
That Phelps is not churning down Lane 4 in the final 50 meters does not mean, as France's Fred Bousquet rightly put it Friday, that there aren't any more stars in the worldwide swim constellation. Phelps always said his primary goal was to grow the sport and, as the London Games underscored, his brilliance has brought forth swimmers from all over the world -- South Africa's Chad le Clos, Lithuania's Ruta Meilutyte and others.
"We should not be different now," Bousquet said. "Just chasing the dream like every other swimmer."
Even so, the world championships in the year following an Olympics is always something of an odd affair. Everyone is acutely aware that the dream -- the real dream -- is three long years away.
"We want to peak in 2016, not 2013," Michael Scott, the Australian team's director of high performance, said at that team's news conference following the Americans -- the Aussies trying to effect a wholesale change in what an independent review called a "toxic" team culture following just 10 medals won in London, only one gold.
The new Aussie way, Scott said, is "by being professional in and out of the pool and doing that with team unity and enjoyment," the theory being medals will follow.
Ryan Lochte, meanwhile, sounded a lot like Michael Phelps circa 2011 -- Lochte also emphasizing that his main goal was Rio in 2016, not Barcelona 2013. "I knew I had to get back in the water eventually," Lochte said, meaning that if he was going to swim here he had to resume training after his reality-TV show and other out-of-the-pool adventures.
"Joan Rivers -- she's awesome. She's a character. Being on her show, it was a lot of fun. Before the show, they told me to wear a swimsuit and I was, like, all right. I put it on under my actual business suit. During the show, she told me to take it off and -- I did. I mean, what can I say? It was a lot of fun.
"You never know what to expect with her. One time I was sitting on a chair talking to her, next thing I knew I was in a fountain still talking to her. It was a lot of fun."
To be fair to Lochte, he didn't just volunteer this story. He was asked about hanging out with Joan Rivers. Then again, before this year, Lochte acknowledged, he had been a beast in training. This year, though, he said, "I took a long break. I don't know if it's going to help me," adding, "My body needed to re-charge. Now I am back in the water and I am excited to race."
Phelps said almost the same thing at the world championships in Shanghai in 2011 before Lochte drilled him in the 200 individual medley, setting a world record, 1:54 flat, Phelps finishing 16-hundredths of a second back.
That loss spurred Phelps to get back in the pool for hard training. In London, Phelps won the 200 IM, in 1:54.27; Lochte took silver, in 1:54.9.
"I mean, Phelps -- there is no doubt about it, he is going to go down in history as the best swimmer ever," Lochte said. "I was just happy I was part of it. He is the hardest racer I ever had to go up against."
Bowman, asked for probably the jillionth time whether Phelps is coming back, offered his practiced reply: "Well, my answer to that is always -- when I see it, I will believe it, and I have had no indication to this point … that's where I will leave that one."
Which is where this meet gets going. Racing starts Sunday, with the first big event the men's 4x100 freestyle relay.
Michael Scott, the Aussie team leader, was asked the key to the relay. In the way that Grevers succinctly summed up the meet, so did Scott: "Swim fast."