Phelps shakes off rust to try new stroke in first meet since Beijing
In his first competition since winning eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics last summer,
The downside for the Olympic champ is the new technique taxes his shoulders and upper arms and can throw off his balance if he doesn't have full control of his body, an adaptation that will be the biggest hurdle in Phelps' new program for 2009.
Phelps is the reigning everything in this event: Olympic gold medalist, world champion and world-record holder, so he was expected to roll pretty easily. Given his long layoff, the question of Phelps' stamina could have come into play here, but he exceeded his target time for the meet, winning the race in 1:46.02 and beating
Given that and the quick turnaround from the 200 free, his 100 fly may have been the biggest surprise of all his races in Charlotte. Phelps cruised to victory in 51.72 seconds, a full second ahead of runner-up
Phelps' winning time in Beijing was 50.58. The world record is still in the hands of his teammate
This is really a new event for Phelps and one he will not contest at a major meet, such as the World Championships or Olympic Games. Because it is the shortest race on the program, it is the one that places the greatest emphasis on a good start, so Phelps is using this race as a way to work on his starts and an opportunity to use the straight-arm stroke for a full lap. He swam only the prelims of the 50 free in Charlotte, placing eighth and qualifying for the A final before scratching from the evening race as planned. Phelps hit the wall in 23.24 seconds. (Leading qualifier
"I had no idea what to expect in this race," Phelps said afterwards. "It's really new territory for me. I just want to see what I can do and maybe get some help with my other events."
In Charlotte, Phelps needed to attack Peirsol from the start to have any chance of fending off his kick. Instead, Peirsol bolted to a lead with a 26.02 in the first 50 split. Phelps was back in second in 26.64 and outswam Peirsol over the second half of the race (27.15 to 27.30), but never really threatened the Olympic champion.
"This race is going to stay with me," Phelps said. "Aaron pretty much has had the upper hand on me in our races. No matter who I'm racing, I hate to lose. The fun part about racing Aaron is that you know he's always going to be there. He's a competitor. He's someone I like to race."
Bowman's take: "Michael's start wasn't very good. He came up out of the water really badly from the start. His turn wasn't where he needed it to be. And he didn't have any legs at the end. I'm not so much worried about that last part because that's just conditioning. He'll have that soon enough . . . If Michael's going to race Aaron, he's going to need much better front half speed than he showed today. You don't just come back on somebody who's the best finisher ever in the event."
In Charlotte, Phelps finished in 49.04, a hefty .82 behind Frenchman
So why not do it for all 100 meters? Apart from the fact that he has to acclimate himself to the strain it puts on his body, especially his shoulders, Phelps found that if he stayed with the stroke for too many meters at once, he would start to lose form and hit a point of diminishing returns. In particular, his head would either bob from side to side or come up too high in the water when he tried to maintain his form for a long stretch. That, in turn, threw off his timing for other parts of the race. "The biggest thing that killed me were my turns and my finish," he said afterwards. "I needed one less stroke into the [50-meter] turn and one more going into the finish. My finish was horrible."
As the year progresses, look for Phelps to incorporate more of the straight-arm technique into his freestyle event as he becomes more comfortable with the technical demands of the stroke. Ideally, he'll be able to swim the 100-meter final at the World Championships in Rome using the stroke for the entire race. For now, it is a work-in-progress.