Since he broke the world record in the 200-meter butterfly at the world championships in Fukuoka, Japan 12 years ago, Michael Phelps has been a staple at every world championship since, bringing home an absurd total of 26 gold medals, six silvers and a bronze. Now without Phelps, the championships enter a new era as they return to Barcelona for the first time since 2003. Here are several questions for the major event of the post-Olympic year as the swimming part of the championships get started at the Palau Saint Jordi on Sunday:
Is Franklin still the can't Missy kid?
You have to love a swimmer who lights the world on fire at the Olympics by winning five medals, including four golds, and then celebrates by going back to high school and having fun with her classmates. Even more impressive, Franklin has left a boatload of money on the table so she could maintain amateur eligibility and swim for Cal-Berkeley next year. Before she does, look for Franklin to go after a backstroke double in Barcelona. Japan's Aya Terakawa should challenge her in the 100, and either Australia's Belinda Hocking or U.S. teammate Elizabeth Pelton will be her main competition in the 200 back, the race that first catapulted her to stardom at the last world championship in 2011 in Shanghai. Beyond that, Franklin should increase her medal haul with the relays and possibly the 100 and 200-meter freestyles. She should be this year's medal machine.
What will Ryan Lochte do?
Ryan Lochte has gone from swimmer to reality TV star, even with what sometimes appears to be -- between the green sneakers and the grill in his teeth -- a tenuous grip on reality. There is no denying Lochte's swimming resume. He brings 11 Olympic medals, including five golds, and 19 long-course world championships medals, including 12 golds, to his fifth worlds in Barcelona. Owing to his versatility, he has qualified for four individual events this year, including the 200-meter individual medley and races in three different strokes: The 100 butterfly, 200 freestyle and 200 backstroke. Without the difficult double of the 200 back and 200 IM to challenge him, Lochte should have the backstroke race to himself, ahead of Japan's Kosuke Hagino and Ryosuke Irie. U.S. teammate Tyler Clary has come up with big efforts in big races before, winning the 200 backstroke in London last year.
Is this a stacked Ledecky?
Katie Ledecky has an ambitious program set for Barcelona, but the 16-year-old whiz from Maryland may be ready to assume her place as the world's top distance swimmer. Ledecky won the 400, 800 and 1,500-meter freestyle events at the U.S. Nationals and also finished second in the 200 free. She'll pass on the open 200 in Spain, but she'll be available for a leg on the U.S. team's 4x200-meter free relay. Ledecky was just getting warmed up when she won the 800 free at the Olympics in London last summer, breaking Janet Evans' U.S. mark that had stood since 1989. Will Ledecky challenge the world mark of 8:14.10 held by Britain's Rebecca Addlington at the Beijing Olympics? And can she lower the world record of 15:42.54 set by Kate Ziegler in 2007? That's a world record that has been in U.S. hands since 1979, thanks largely to Evans. Ledecky will certainly be pushed by Jazmin Carlin of the U.K. in the longer race.
Who should be the lock of the championships?
This isn't a name most U.S. fans will commit to memory, but Ruta Meilutyte is way ahead of everyone on the form chart for the 100-meter breaststroke. The 16-year-old Lithuanian has roughly a full second on anyone else in the race, leaving the crowded field of medal chasers -- Breeja Larsen and Jessica Hardy of the U.S., Rikke Pederson of Denmark, Yuliya Efimova of Russia -- well behind. Meilutyte was the surprise Olympic champ last summer, and it doesn't hurt her prospects that Rebecca Soni, the U.S. silver medalist in London, is sitting this one out. The British-trained teen follows a list of swimmers like Ute Geweniger of East Germany, Penelope Heyns of South Africa and Leisel Jones of Australia who dominated the race for stretches of time. Her era is just kicking in.
Can Chad Le close the deal?
Michael Phelps was a sure thing in the 200-meter butterfly, his signature race, at the London Olympics ... until he wasn't. It was unthinkable that South Africa's Chad Le Clos could outkick Phelps to the wall at the Games ... until he did. Even Le Clos thought he had no chance before the race to dethrone the swimmer he considered his idol, but Le Clos got his hand on the wall .05 seconds ahead to take gold. He also tied for silver, behind Phelps, in the 100 fly later in the competition. Now the 21-year-old with the coolest name in the sport -- that's Chad Guy Bertrand Le Clos for those keeping record -- is back to attempt a double in both butterfly races in Barcelona. Lochte will be in there for the 100, but expect Le Clos' biggest challenge to come from Steffen Deibler of Germany. The 200 should easier for him, though Poland's Pawel Korzeniowski and Japan's Takeshi Matsuda could emerge should Le Clos fade. Tyler Clary looked subpar in qualifying for the race against U.S. foes, but should be much faster in Spain.
Is Australia free at last?
It's been a rough stretch for Australian swimming since the days when the boys and girls from down under could challenge for the overall medal count and even Thorpedo the world in certain races. How they would love to clone Ian Thorpe, Susie O'Neill, Kieren Perkins, Leisel Jones and Grant Hackett. Is Dawn Fraser still available? More to the point, what can the world power do to bounce back from the Games in London, where the team failed to bring home an individual gold and their program was racked with scandals that ranged from bullying to excessive use of sleeping pills? In Barcelona, both James Magnussen and Cate Campbell are in position to heal some wounds by winning their respective 100-meter freestyle races. Magnussen was the world champ and Olympic favorite, but got nipped at the wall by a hundredth of a second by Nathan Adrian of the U.S. in London. Magnussen will be favored to top Adrian again in Barcelona. Campbell has been posting the season's fastest times, but must still hold off both Franklin and Olympic champ Ranomi Kromowidjojo of the Netherlands.