Gregg Troy

Michael Phelps goes for ... seven

OMAHA -- Eleven years ago, the incomparable Ian Thorpe turned in a swim of refined beauty in the 200 meter freestyle. It was at the 2001 world championships in Fukuoka, Japan, and he swam it in 1 minute, 44.06 seconds, a world record. It took another magnificent swim for that record to fall. Michael Phelps went 1:43.86 at the 2007 world championships in Melbourne, Australia, a swim that happened in the dead of night back home in the United States.

Most Americans never really saw what Michael Phelps could do in the 200 free until the Beijing Olympics, when he went 1:42.96. There, they saw the power, the grace, the aesthetic beauty of the way he drove through the water in the simplest, most elegant stroke known to humankind.

In announcing Monday that he would not defend his Olympic 200 free title in London, Phelps and his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, are assuredly making the shrewd, tactical move.

Even so, a pause before we get there to appreciate Phelps and his place in the 200 free. In 2004, for instance, at the Athens Games, he stepped in against Thorpe and Holland's Pieter van den Hoogenband. Thorpe won, in Olympic-record time, van den Hoogenband coming in second. Phelps took third, in a then-American record 1:45.32. And he was criticized -- by some, who didn't understand -- for "only" winning bronze.

Over the years, there have been so many dozens of Phelps 200s. Some have been truly remarkable; some, naturally, less so. When he is on, there is a glide and a seemingly effortless elegance to his stroke. Even though he had just come down from six weeks at altitude in Colorado Springs, this week you could sense the glide starting to emerge, and for that reason it's melancholy to think he won't be swimming the 200 in London.

That said, logic dictates any number of reasons why he shouldn't.

It frees him up for other races. They will include both the 100 and 200 butterflys; the 200 and 400 IMs; and all three relays, and in particular the 400 free relay.

No male swimmer has ever pulled the individual three-peat -- that is, won the same event in three straight Olympics.

Meanwhile, the 400 free relay is a key marker for the U.S. team. Schedule-wise, moreover, the relay final comes on the same day as the preliminaries and semifinals of the 200 freestyle. The heats and semis of the 200 fly come the very next day, as does the final of the 200 free.

"That's a tough program Michael swims," Gregg Troy, who will serve as the U.S. men's national coach in London, said at a news conference here Monday. "It's really tough. He's a little bit older" -- Phelps turned 27 on Saturday -- "and those older guys don't recover quite as quickly, and it's hard to do."

It takes the burden off another eight-event program; including relays, Phelps will likely swim seven in London. Now he won't have to answer any questions -- not even one -- about eight events.

`It's so much smarter for me to do that,'' Phelps told the Associated Press. ``We're not trying to recreate what happened in Beijing. It just makes sense.''

Bowman told reporters Monday, "Yes, we won't hear the number eight again after this press conference. As Michael said all along, it wasn't going to be eight. He has said that for the last four years."

Moreover, and not incidentally, it means that the last 200 free he ever swims against Ryan Lochte is, for the history books, a win for Phelps, here in Omaha at the U.S. Trials, by five-hundredths of a second.

In London, Phelps and Lochte will swim head-to-head only in the 200 and 400 IMs.

You can believe that Phelps and Bowman have made four swimmers really, really happy:

-- Ricky Berens, who now gets to swim in the 200 free. He had finished third, behind Phelps and Lochte.

-- Davis Tarwater, who now gets added to the U.S. team. He had been seventh in the 200 free final.

-- Park Tae-Hwan of South Korea. Lochte, who won the 200 free at the 2011 worlds in Shanghai, is the gold medal favorite. But Park, who in Beijing won silver in the 200 and gold in the 400, has to be thrilled Phelps won't be swimming.

-- Paul Biedermann of Germany. Biedermann now holds the world record in the 200, 1:42 flat, set in Rome at the 2009 world championships, during the crazy plastic-suit era. He hasn't come close to that time since swimmers have gone back to textile suits, and has freely admitted that the suits helped his times.

Biedermann finished fifth in Beijing in the 200 in 1:46. Now, with Phelps out of the picture, he must be thinking he might be able to medal.

Two nights ago, Phelps and Bowman were sitting at the dais, and Phelps, as the news conference drew to a close, was reflecting on the Trials while also looking forward to London. He said, "There are some things that I want to finish my career with" -- as usual, he didn't enumerate them -- "and I know they're going to be challenging, and Bob and I have a couple of weeks to try to perfect those."

And that, too, is why Phelps won't be swimming the 200 free.

Jeah, that's a world record

SHANGHAI -- There's a reason high-school gym coaches everywhere are always preaching to get your backside in the gym, telling you that hard work really does pay off, that the people who are most prepared end up winning.

It's true.

Ryan Lochte defeated Michael Phelps in the 200-meter individual medley Thursday night in a thrilling race, setting the first world record of the 2011 world championships -- the first world record in a 50-meter pool since the plastic-suit era ended.

Lochte was timed in 1:54 flat, Phelps in 1:54.16. Laszlo Cseh of Hungary, who is a terrific swimmer but has the misfortune of being on the world stage during the same years as Phelps and Lochte, finished third, in 1:57.69.

Lochte had held the previous world record, 1:54:10, set at the 2009 worlds in Rome.

"The only word to describe that race is, jeah!" Lochte said after Thursday's race, which is Lochte-speak for "everything is really, really cool," which for him right now it assuredly is.

He has this week defeated Phelps twice, in the 200 IM and in the 200 free. Over the last year, Lochte has worked out like a fiend. Phelps has only in the past few months started to apply himself again.

To the uninitiated, 16-hundredths of a second may seem like a cruel differentiator. But on such small slices do world records, and championships, rest. At this level, swimming is that exact.

The difference between the two Thursday was rooted in the work each had put in beforehand.

Lochte and Phelps are good friends. Both savor winning. Neither likes to lose, and that's putting it mildly. What we have now is a year in which both have vowed to get their respective backsides into the gym, and the pool, in preparation for London.

Those 2012 Games should thus be an amazing show.

Because Thursday night sure was.

"I wanted to do something that everyone thought wasn't possible since they banned those suits." Lochte said. "Everyone thought a world record would never get touched again. I just wanted to show everyone that can happen. That's why we have records. They're meant to get broken.

"All that hard work I've done this year, and dedication. It definitely paid off."

The fiasco that was the Rome 2009 world championships -- where 43 world records were broken, because of the plastic suits -- was underscored by the specialness of the occasion Thursday. FINA, swimming's worldwide governing body, hauled out a sponsor-plastered backdrop for photo ops at Lochte's news conference; that sort of thing didn't happen in Rome. Why would it? 43 records -- it got to be silly.

To break a world record, said Nathan Adrian, the best American sprinter, "It takes something spectacular, not just great, and Ryan's got it."

Lochte's coach, Gregg Troy, wryly noted that Lochte's effort was "not a perfect swim but probably pretty good for him."

Lochte's final 15 meters in particular, and now Troy was being dead serious, were superb.

He added, referring to Lochte and Phelps, "I think you watched the two best IM swimmers ever. You got a real treat. By the same token," and you would expect a coach to say this, because there's always room for improvement, particularly heading into an Olympic year, and mindful always that Phelps is nearby, "I'm not real pleased with Ryan's performance -- it could be better."

Troy added, "I don't know that we're going to call a few one-hundredths of a second surpassing Michael Phelps but it puts us in a good lead." That said: "There is absolutely no doubt in my mind Michael is going to be at his peak next year."

Before Lochte took the record in 2009, the previous eight 200 IM world records were held by Phelps, dating all the way back to 2003.

As he has grown up, Phelps has become increasingly gracious with that portion of his role that asks him to stop in what's called the "mixed zone," the alley just off the pool deck where reporters wait to talk to swimmers.

He was frustrated enough by the loss that he blew through the zone, then just moments later realized his mistake and issued through a USA Swimming spokeswoman a few words expressing his emotions. He started a news conference later in the evening by apologizing for not stopping in the zone.

He also said, "There's a lot of frustration going through my head. This is going to help me through the tough months of training through the next year."

Phelps' time Thursday is actually seven-hundredths faster than he went in winning gold in Beijing in 2008 -- and, again, he is nowhere near 2008 shape, testament if nothing else to the force of his competitive drive and sheer will.

"I thought I had it [won] with the last stroke," Phelps said. "I felt myself gaining, gaining, gaining," and the stat sheet shows that indeed Phelps swam the last 50 meters faster than Lochte, 27.36 to 27.49.

Phelps was faster on the opening leg, the butterfly, too. But Lochte won the middle two legs, the back and breast.

Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, said of the race: "It's the small things. I thought [Phelps] lost the race on the last stroke of breaststroke. He totally lost his momentum going into the wall. That's a pretty small thing. But that's what you get when swim every day. You get the sense of that. It becomes, like, innate. He's just trying to invent it right here.

"He's really good, and he kind of remembers what it's like, but it's just not exactly right."

Behind the scenes this week, Phelps said, he and others knew it was going to take a world record to win this race. "It says something that we're still able to do those times," even in textile-only suits, Phelps observed.

Lochte, who had a banner 2010 and is now having an arguably better 2011, "has done all the little small things right," Phelps said, adding, "He has improved his underwaters a ton. he has more comfortable speed than what he had before.

"He is super-focused right now and you can see that. He is putting the races together that are helping him win. To be honest, he is more prepared. Races are always won, things are always won, by people who are most prepared."