Monday May 18th, 2009

In his first competition since winning eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics last summer, Michael Phelps came to the Charlotte Ultraswim meet in North Carolina well-rested and with some new style: he debuted a new straight-arm or "windmill" stroke technique for some of his freestyle events, a stroke that allows him to slice throw the water more efficiently.

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. With two important competitions looming for Phelps this season -- the World Trials on July 7-11 in Indianapolis and the World Championships in Rome from July 26 through Aug. 2, here is a breakdown of how Phelps fared in each of his races in Charlotte this past weekend:

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 Peter Vanderkaay, the Beijing Olympic bronze medalist in the event, by .69 seconds. Before the race, Phelps told Bowman and longtime Michigan coach Jon Urbancek that he would have been happy to finish with five seconds of his world record 1:42.96. "It was faster than I thought," Phelps said later. "Pretty steady." Bowman was especially pleased with the way Phelps divided up the race. "He split it real well," Bowman said, "In in 52, back in 54. For his final, it's a really good start."

Less than 40 minutes after the 200 free, Phelps jumped back in for the 100 fly, the race he came closest to losing in Beijing. At the Olympics, Phelps touched out Serbia's Milorad Cavic by a hundredth of a second. But this time, with the change in freestyle technique that Phelps had been working on with Bowman and the increased mileage he was putting in with his backstroke, Phelps had spent less time training butterfly than usual. "And his training sessions were awful," Bowman said. "Let's just say there was a lot of rust there."

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 Tyler McGill. "Considering he hadn't swum a good fly in training all week, I'd say that looked like the old Michael," said Bowman. "He swam that with so much control. He wasn't swimming it like a guy who was trying to prove something after a long layoff."

Phelps' winning time in Beijing was 50.58. The world record is still in the hands of his teammate Ian Crocker, who swam a blistering 50.40 in winning the 2005 worlds in Montreal. Look for Phelps to go hard this year and next after Crocker's record. If he gets it, the 50-second barrier may not be far behind.

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 George Bovell touched in 21.88; the world record for the event stands at 20.94).

"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."

Phelps has played with the backstroke before. It may be only his third best stroke (butterfly is No. 1; freestyle is a close No. 2; breaststroke is definitely his weakest), but in 2004, he nearly missed eclipsing Aaron Peirsol's world record in the 200 back. He then qualified for the Olympics in the 200 back by finishing second to Peirsol at the Olympic trials, but opted to skip it in favor of the 200 free because of the tight Olympic schedule. Phelps wants to add at least one backstroke race to his program at the Worlds and Olympics, though which one remains a mystery. In particular, he loves the challenge of racing Peirsol, who has won 12 gold medals at Worlds and the Olympics and is among the best backstrokers in history.

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."

This is the race that Phelps really wants to make a staple of his program for the next four years. He has won four national titles in this event, and his relay split of 47.51 seconds during the Beijing Olympics established the current U.S. national record. Yet he has never swum it as an individual event at the World Championships or Olympics. He is making his transition away from some of his longer races -- having set the last eight world records in the 400m individual medley, he is leaving that race behind -- eyeing a program with greater emphasis on the sprints, and this is the focal point for him.

In Charlotte, Phelps finished in 49.04, a hefty .82 behind Frenchman Fred Bousquet, who has been racking up victories left and right in the 50- and 100-meter freestyles. Phelps was hoping to use as much of the straight-arm technique as possible in this race, but still doesn't quite feel comfortable with the stroke. He swam the first 25 meters with bent arms, the next 25 with straight arms, then 35 with bent arms and the last 15 into the wall with straight arms. "I could definitely feel myself accelerating once I went to the straight arms," he said after the race.

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.

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