Paul Biedermann

Of fear, failure and world-record brilliance


KAZAN, Russia — Bobbing in the warmup pool before the start of Tuesday night’s finals, a black-and-red swim cap bore this declaration: “Your own worst enemy is your fear.”

For years and years, swimmers from other nations — even if they didn’t want to admit it and would never say so in public — feared the mighty U.S. swim team. This 2015 world championships is only three days old, and there is plenty of racing to go, but one thing, more than anything, is already clear: the fear is gone.

The rest of the world has for sure caught up to the United States.

Indeed, swimmers from other countries have proven themselves better than the Americans, and in a number of disciplines, a dramatic trend that has emerged as the No. 1 story at Kazan 2015, and could hold significant consequence for next year’s Rio 2016 Olympics.

On Monday, the U.S. went medal-less in three finals.

On Tuesday, American swimmers came up empty in the men’s 200 freestyle — Ryan Lochte, fourth — and the women’s 100 backstroke — Missy Franklin, fifth, and Kathleen Baker, eighth.

Katie Ledecky with her 1500 free gold medal // Getty Images

The Americans did salvage one non-Katie Ledecky medal — Matt Grevers’ third-place in the men’s 100 backstroke. Grevers had been the defending champion in the 100 back from Barcelona 2013 and the London 2012 Games.

His bronze marked the first medal of the meet for U.S. men.

The 18-year-old Ledecky has stamped herself at these championships as the No. 1 swimmer in the world. Zero question. Every race is a chance at a world record.

On Tuesday night, Ledecky demolished the world record in the 1500 free final that she herself had set in the prelims the day before.

Monday: 15:27.71.

Tuesday: 15:25.48, 2.23 seconds faster. She won the race by more than 14 seconds over Lauren Boyle of New Zealand, 15:40.14.

That made for her ninth world record — in the 1500, 800 or 400 — since 2013. Ninth!

Ledecky’s stats verge on the outrageous.

Her time Tuesday is a full 24-plus seconds under the qualifying mark for U.S. men for the 2016 Olympic Trials, 15:49.99. A Belgian journalist, Philippe Vande Weyer, who knows the Olympic scene well, said on his Twitter feed that Ledecky’s time Tuesday would have won the Belgian men’s championships by 52 seconds.

Some 29 minutes after the 1500 final, Ledecky was back into the water for a punishing double, bidding to qualify for Wednesday night’s 200 free final. Eighth at 100, seventh at 150, she raced the last 50 meters hard, finishing third in her heat for the sixth-best time over the two semis, 1:56.76.

Franklin advanced as well, with the second-best time, 1:56.37.

Missy Franklin, left, and Katie Ledecky at the close of the 200 free semis // Getty Images

Of the 1500, Ledecky said afterward, she thought during the race about both her grandfathers, both passed away, mindful that her two grandmothers were “watching carefully” back home: “I thought about my grandpas at one point in the race, and dug deep.”

Before the 200, she said, her “legs kind of felt like jello,” surprising because, as she said, “I barely kicked in the mile,” what swimmers call the 1500.

Jello, for those intrigued by what someone with Ledecky’s cool uses for fuel, had not been on the menu beforehand. At noon, she’d had pesto pasta, rice, green beans and some bread. At 2:45, more pasta: “I always have pasta before a final.”

In the 200, she said, “I dove in and my arms felt really really sore and my legs felt better than my arms, so I knew I had to kick. I toughed my way through that race and I couldn’t be more pleased with how that went.”

She also said of her brutal double and world-record 1500 swim, “I wasn’t afraid to fail.”

The U.S. medal count after three days: four, two gold, two bronze.

Ledecky has both golds: the 1500 and 400, which she won Sunday in setting a meet (but not world) record. The bronze medals: Grevers and the women’s 4x100 relay team.

Great Britain and Australia lead the medals count, each with five.

Britain’s emergence offers emphatic proof of how the world has changed. At the Barcelona 2013 worlds, the British won one medal, a bronze.

You have to go back to 1986, and the days of Communism, to find a swim worlds in which the U.S. did not win the overall medal count. That year, the East Germans won, with 30; the Americans came in second, with 24.

There is zero doubt that over the decades the U.S. has been the dominant power in world championships swimming. Coming into Kazan 2015, the U.S. had won the most medals (and by far), with 418; Australia had 152. Same goes for the gold-medal count: U.S. 231, Australia 58.

The Americans’ real edge has come in world championship years the year before an Olympics. See, for instance, 2011 Shanghai (29 medals, 16 gold); 2007 Melbourne (36 medals, 20 gold, as Michael Phelps geared up for Beijing 2008); Barcelona 2003 (28 overall, 11 gold).

Phelps is not in Kazan as part of the fallout from his drunk-driving case.

Meanwhile, evidence of how much better the rest of the world has become was all around Tuesday:

— Seven world records have already been set at Kazan 2015, bettering the mark set by the end of  Barcelona two years ago, where there were six. Ledecky has two; the rest of the world, five.

— Before Tuesday, no female swimmer from New Zealand had ever won a gold or silver at the worlds in any event. Boyle and Zoe Baker had been the only women from New Zealand to win a worlds medal — bronze, five in all. Boyle’s silver in the 1500 made for a first.

— In Tuesday morning’s prelims of the men’s 50 breaststroke, South Africa’s Cameron Van Der Burgh broke the world record. At night, Britain’s Adam Peaty — in the first of two semifinals — lowered it again, down to 26.42.

American Kevin Cordes set an American record in the semis, 26.76. Peaty, in the next lane, went a full three-tenths faster over a mere 50 meters.

Peaty, afterward: "The morning swim was easy, and I knew this was just the 50-meter race, not my main event," the 100, which he has already won here, "so I didn’t have any pressure. This made this semi also really easy for me."

— The top three in the men’s 200 free: James Guy of Britain, 1:45.14; China’s Sun Yang, 1:45.20; Germany’s Paul Biedermann, 1:45.38.

The men's 200 free podium: Paul Biedermann (Germany) left; James Guy (Britain), center; Sun Yang (China), right

Guy’s victory not only denied Sun the chance for a four-peat: the 400 (which Sun won on Sunday), as well as the 800 and 1500, in which he is a strong favorite.

The win also established Guy as one of the middle-distance favorites for 2016. He took second, behind Sun, on Sunday in the 400.

Guy is 19 years old, and will now hold forever the distinction of being the first British male ever to win a worlds freestyle title. He said of winning, “I’ve never thought I could reach that -- beyond making the final. With so many great swimmers around, Chad [le Clos] ... Ryan, Sun who are my idols … My tactics were just swim my own race, concentrate on myself and that worked.”

For his part, Lochte’s fourth matched the fourths he registered in the 200 from Barcelona 2013 worlds as well as the London 2012 Olympics in the 200 free. He said afterward he just needed to train harder.

— Grevers' third-place Tuesday, in 52.66, came in a tight race. He finished behind Mitchell Larkin of Australia, 52.40, and Camille Lacourt of France, 52.48.

Grevers, after: “I’m very surprised I lost the back half of that. That’s not how I train. I train to finish. I don’t train to die. I practice living, not dying. So dying there was very disappointing.”

— Franklin is the gold medalist in the 100 back at London 2012 and Barcelona 2013 (as well as gold medalist in the 200 free two years ago). On Tuesday night’s in the 100 back, she managed 59.4, more than a second behind winner Emily Seebohm of Australia, 58.26. Second, another Australian, Madison Wilson. Third, Denmark’s Mie Oe Nielsen. Fourth, China’s Fu Yuanhui.

Franklin said, “I have literally done everything I could have possibly done the past two months to be prepared for this meet. No excuses. I was at 59.4 and that’s obviously where I am right now.”

— Here was the field for the women’s 100 breaststroke final: Italy, Japan, Jamaica, Russia, Lithuania, China, Sweden and Iceland. Jamaica! Iceland!

Russia’s Yulia Efimova won the race, in 1:05.66, and Kazan Arena rocked hard a few minutes later as the crowd sang the national anthem.

It’s well-known in swim circles that Efimova trained in Los Angeles, at USC. Iceland’s Hrafnhildur Luthersdottir trained in Florida, at Gainesville.

This sort of thing has been going on for years and years, and it’s not going to change, nor should it — athletes from all over the world coming to the United States for opportunity.

At the same time, a variety of factors might explain why the Americans find themselves looking up at the end of races and not finding the familiar “1” next to the red, white and blue:

— Phelps isn’t here. He’s not only the best swimmer in U.S. history but had emerged in recent years as a genuine team leader.

— The Americans have long had a disdain for non-Olympic events such as the 50 sprints (everything but free: fly, breast, back) and new events such as mixed relays. The conversation should be had, and soon, about whether that focus deserves intense review.

Outside of Nathan Adrian, it’s hard to pick anyone in the U.S. sprint program who seems like a sure lock for a medal, men or women.

— The U.S. team for Kazan 2015 was picked a year ago. There were athletes who raced at the recent Pan-American Games in Toronto who should have been here, and vice-versa.

Such a selection policy deserves, again, review.

— And, perhaps most of all, there’s the fear factor. Or, better, the lack of it.

Tyler Clary, the 200 backstroke gold medalist from London 2012, finished 12th in the 200 fly semifinals Tuesday, an event in which one American — Tom Shields, eighth — qualified for the finals.

For years, Phelps ruled the 200 fly. Now, until proven otherwise, le Clos is the man. The South African turned in a solid second-place effort in Tuesday’s semis, behind Hungarian veteran Laszlo Cheh.

Clary said after the race that, big picture, Kazan 2015 ought to be considered a “rehearsal” for Rio 2016, that results here “ought to be taken with a grain of salt.”

He said, “Regardless of what the medal counts might look like, and we’re not having the most excellent meet Team USA has ever had … at the end of the day, all that matters is how we do next summer.”

Asked if the rest of the world had caught up with the Americans, Clary said, “I can agree with that.”

The next question — did swimmers from everywhere else no long fear the mighty Americans?

“It’s not my place,” he said, “to comment on the psyche of other swimmers. Maybe, maybe not.” He paused. “They certainly don’t swim like it.”

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.

Lochte beats Phelps. Lesson: hard work pays off

SHANGHAI -- Coming into these 2011 swimming world championships, Michael Phelps observed that he had lacked motivation but had found it again. His coach, Bob Bowman, declared, "We did a year's worth of training in nine months. How that worked, we're going to find out -- shortly." It's not quite enough.

Ryan Lochte beat Phelps in the 200-meter freestyle Tuesday night by about a half-second. Lochte is a major talent in his own right, and he deserved this victory, absolutely deserved it, because as he said at a news conference afterward, "All that hard work that I've done actually paid off."

There's a lot of racing left at these championships -- Lochte and Phelps, who are good friends, will square off again in the 200 individual medley -- and if Lochte ultimately emerges the big winner here, it means the mainstream press is going to have a big time over the next year, in the lead-up to the London 2012 Olympics, proclaiming the emergence of The Big New American Swim Star, while wondering if Phelps' star is diminishing, if not diminished.

Not so fast.

Again, Lochte is an incredible talent as well as a great personality. He showed up behind the blocks Tuesday night wearing his beloved shiny green high-top sneakers. Coming off the medals stand, he sported a diamond grille in his teeth. This year, he's favoring a new shorter haircut instead of the longer curly locks he used to sport.

Lochte likes to say, "Jeah!" which is his way of saying he likes something a lot. He's great with kids. He's genuinely funny and humble and USA Swimming loves to use him in a variety of its promotions.

He and Phelps are such pals that Phelps, who is notoriously anti-social in the ready room before races, actually will talk to Lochte there. Indeed, before this 200 free Phelps had his music up so loud -- it's always Lil Wayne or Young Jeezy -- that he and Lochte were singing aloud together to the music. Way before they got there, Lochte had posted to his Twitter feed, "Me and @MichaelPhelps gotta eat these swimmers like Anthony Hopkins tonite. Let's go #USA, #JEAH"

All of that.

Lochte won gold in the 200 backstroke in Beijing in 2008 and bronze, behind Phelps, in both the 200 and 400 IMs. They teamed up to help win gold in the 800 Beijing free relay.

Lochte is a way better athlete now than in 2008, a "completely different" swimmer, he said Tuesday, "a lot stronger" and "a lot smarter," a guy who eats better and trains like he wants to win.

This, though, is a constant: He is one of the very few swimmers who has no fear of racing Phelps. Never has. As he put it simply Tuesday night, "We both want to win."

For sure, Phelps' amazing career has been marked not just by his desire to win but by an almost pathological revulsion to losing.

As good as Lochte is, what's now at issue is that Phelps is back in the game, and for real. He said late Tuesday night, "I'm happy to be back in the water again," adding, "I probably haven't had that feeling since '08."

So here's the deal, and you can bet both swimmers and their camps know it:

Lochte is in great shape. Phelps is not.

Even so, over the final 50 meters, Phelps -- who has always been a great closer -- swam faster than Lochte. Phelps went 26.66. Lochte went 26.95.

Imagine if Phelps was in better shape and was able to get over on his turns, and kick out better on those turns -- points that Bowman noted afterward. These technical points may seem like swim geek stuff. They're not. They're power points that win races.

Imagine, too, if Phelps was in better shape and able to carry the race through all four laps the way he wanted. He had said beforehand that the guy who flipped first at the third turn was going to win. Phelps flipped first at the first and second turns but then the race got away from him; he was third at 150; Lochte flipped first at that third turn.

The final scoreboard: Lochte 1:44.44, Phelps 1:44.79.

For Phelps to be back down in the 44s, though -- as Bowman put it, "The year I've had -- thank you. We're very happy with that."

There's this, too:

The 200 free has been one of Phelps' signature races. When Australia's Ian Thorpe set the world record in the event at the 2001 worlds, 1:44.06, it was thought unapproachable -- until Phelps broke it six years later, at the 2007 worlds, going 1:43.86.

At the 2008 Games, Phelps then lowered the mark to 1:42.96.

At the 2009 worlds in Rome, amid the plastic-suit craziness, Germany's Paul Biedermann not only beat Phelps -- Phelps has called it a "beat-down" -- but took the record, lowering it to 1:42 flat.

That mark is totally suspect, though Phelps has never said so.

Phelps on Tuesday beat Biedermann, who finished third, in 1:44.88, almost three seconds back of that 2009 time. "Yeah, the suits helped," Biedermann said at a news conference after racing Tuesday.

Phelps, who later Tuesday night had to swim hard to qualify for the finals of the 200 fly, said, referring to the 200 free, "With the training that has happened over the last six to eight months, that's all I had in the tank. I would have loved to win. I think this is something that is going to help me, a lot, over the next year."

He also said, "I think I know where I can get and what it takes to get back there. I know I can go faster than that. I know for sure I can go faster than that. That's not even a question. Like I said, I am pleased with where that is now.

"But that time won't win a gold medal next year."

Which, after all, is the end game.

The end nears for Phelps -- amid a new beginning

SHANGHAI -- Michael Phelps turned 26 a few weeks ago, at the end of June. He  can see the end of his competitive swimming career, in London, a year from now. The beginning of the end starts here, this week in Shanghai, at the world championships.

Maybe he wins the 100 and 200 butterflys, like he usually does, and maybe he wins back the 200 freestyle from Germany's Paul Biedermann. Maybe he out-duels fellow American Ryan Lochte in the 200 individual medley. Or maybe not. Whatever. This meet matters, of course, because it's the worlds, but at the same time it's a set-up for what matters more, and that's next July in London.

What matters most of all is that Phelps has, over the past several months, discovered anew the essence of what has stamped him as the greatest swimmer of all time.

To be a great swimmer you have to want to be a great swimmer.

Phelps wants it again. "I feel like my own self," he said.

At a jam-packed news conference here Saturday, so crowded that if it had been in the United States the fire marshals would have been on high alert, Phelps acknowledged he had basically played a lot of golf and not done a lot of committed swimming for a good chunk of time after the 2009 worlds in Rome.

Look -- who can blame the guy? How would you like to produce motivation after doing what nobody had done before, winning those eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing?

If you had 14 Olympic gold medals in your career, 16 Olympic medals overall, what would it take to get you out of bed in the morning to go swim in a cold pool?

"It didn't matter how much I wanted him to be there," Bowman said. "He had to want to be there."

The issue was when -- if -- that switch was going to go off.

It clicked several months back.

Phelps has been sitting for news conferences since he was 15; the 26-year-old who sat Saturday and answered questions for nearly 30 minutes proved thoughtful, reflective and mature, indeed.

This is the Michael Phelps his family and close friends know and appreciate; this was really him; he was genuine and forthright and sought to explain why, really why, it clicked and in that explanation he quite unintentionally underscored his extraordinary appeal -- and not just in the United States.

Phelps opened a Twitter-style account here in China just days ago. It's called Weibo here. As of Saturday, it already had 87,169 followers.

Here is the Phelps mantra, which he reiterated Saturday: If you work really hard at something, and don't let anyone tell you something is impossible, you can achieve anything.

What clicked, he made plain, is when he realized that all over again -- now as a grown man, and on his own terms.

"I mean, it was just taking charge of my own actions," Phelps said. "You know, just sort of deciding I wanted to do it for myself -- not Bob having to sort of twist my arm to get me in the pool.

"I know if I want to accomplish my goals, I have to do it myself.

"… For me to actually show up, to work out, I have to do it myself. I have to do it. Over the last six to eight months, that has been the case. I have been excited and happy to be in the pool …"

A few minutes later, he said, "This is just how it is. There are always going to be great times. There are going to be hard times. I haven't dealt with the hard times the last two years like I used to. They're under my belt now. I know what to expect if I don't train.

"… It's funny how when you do train, you do swim well. Who would have thought? It's that easy. All you have to do is train."

Bowman said, "Golf is not good for the 200 butterfly. We can definitively say that."

He also said, "We did a year's worth of training in nine months. How that worked -- we're going to find out -- shortly."

Racing gets underway Sunday with the 400-meter freestyle relay. U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese declined Saturday to say who would be swimming, and in what order; Phelps traditionally swims the lead-off leg. Phelps' first individual race final is likely to come Tuesday -- the 200 free.

"I'm excited," Michael Phelps said, "to get in the water."