Now that the 2011 World Championships final of the men's 200-meter butterfly is history, we can all stop worrying about Michael Phelps' swimming fitness and start worrying about his golf game. In winning his fifth world title in what he calls his "bread and butter" event, Phelps looked strong and focused Wednesday, leaving one to wonder if the pastime that frequently distracted the 14-time Olympic gold medalist from the pool the last three years is now in complete shambles.
One thing is certain: In his second individual event at the championships here, Phelps looked more like the dominant swimmer he was in Beijing in 2008 and less like the guy who uncharacteristically lost three straight 200 fly races at Grand Prix meets this spring. After charging to the lead early, Phelps briefly relinquished it on the third lap before surging past Japan's Takeshi Matsuda to stab the wall first. Though his time of 1:53.34 was nearly two seconds off the world record he set at the 2009 Worlds in Rome in a high-tech suit, it was his seventh fastest time ever, and his margin over Matsuda -- .67 seconds -- was exactly the edge he had over silver medalist Laszlo Cseh of Hungary at the Beijing Olympics.
"I felt like my old self the last 100 of that race, especially the last 25," Phelps said. "I didn't feel like I was dying, like I could barely get my arms out of the water, like there was a piano on my back. I felt like I was actually swimming for a whole 200 meters, so it felt good."
That strong finish, which was missing in the spring, wasn't just a reflection of improved fitness. Phelps' loss to China's Wu Peng at the Ann Arbor Grand Prix meet in April -- the American's first defeat in the race in nine years -- angered him. A second loss to Wu in May, followed by a loss to Australian Nick D'Arcy in June, galvanized him.
"I didn't want to lose that race again," he said. "Having a number of defeats this year is extremely frustrating. I didn't like the feeling. I wanted to have the feeling of winning a race again. It feels good to win a race. It doesn't matter what it is. I dug as deep as I could that last 50 just to try to finish as strong as I could."
The 200 fly was Phelps' first victory in three tries so far in this meet, yet it was just one of three performances here -- his leadoff leg in the 4x100 free relay and his second-place finish to Ryan Lochte in the 200 free were the others -- that got high marks from the swimmer and his coaches. Before the Worlds, Phelps had written in his journal all the times he wanted to hit before the meet.
"Every single one I've written down, I'm right at it," he said. "I wanted to be 1:53 low and that's what I was. I was a second and a half faster than last year. And I feel like I'm kind of getting back."
His return to the top of the World Championships podium, in the event that first landed him there 10 years ago -- a picture of that win, when he was 16, still hangs at his Meadowbrook practice facility in Baltimore -- left Phelps smiling but, as one reporter pointed out to him, somewhat reserved.
"I'm super happy with swimming faster than last year," Phelps said. "But I still want more in that event. I want to be faster."
Wednesday's win, he added, "was a little too close for my comfort."