Column: Phelps should be at world championships this summer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) When the world's top swimmers head to Russia this summer for the biggest meet outside the Olympics, one important name will be missing from the U.S. team.
Michael Phelps has been relegated to a backup meet in Texas.
''Is it frustrating? Of course,'' Phelps said Friday night after swimming at the Arena Pro Series meet.
He brought this on himself, of course. The most decorated athlete in Olympic history received a six-month suspension following his drunken-driving arrest last September, an appropriate punishment given it was Phelps' second DUI and he could've killed someone with his reckless actions.
USA Swimming tacked on an additional punishment, barring him from the FINA world championships in Kazan, the most important competition leading up to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
That's where the governing body went too far.
It's not too late to change course, but USA Swimming has given no indication it will grant Phelps a reprieve, even though he owned up to his actions, went through a treatment program and has, from all indications, maintained his sobriety since the arrest.
So, he'll settle for San Antonio in early August, competing at the U.S. national championships against swimmers who didn't qualify for worlds.
''He'd love to have one more world championships,'' said his coach, Bob Bowman. ''I think that's hurt him a little bit, hurt his motivation a little bit.''
FINA wants Phelps in Kazan so bad it would be willing to bend the rule book to get him there.
Executive director Cornel Marculescu, who essentially runs the organization as a one-man fiefdom, went so far as to say he would create an extra spot for Phelps, so the U.S. wouldn't have to kick another swimmer off its team to make room for him.
''It's important for us to have Phelps there in any way because he's our pope,'' Marculescu told The Associated Press on Friday, while traveling to Kazan for meetings with local organizers.
But he said USA Swimming is sticking to its guns, refusing to scale back the sanctions against Phelps.
''We contacted them,'' Marculescu said. ''There has been correspondence but no feedback. We told them it's very important to have Michael Phelps. But they have their own rules.''
Chuck Wielgus, the executive director of USA Swimming, has acknowledged holding some preliminary discussions with Phelps' representatives about allowing him to compete at worlds.
But those discussions apparently fizzled, and both Bowman and officials from USA Swimming say they've passed the point of no return.
''I can tell you we're going to San Antonio, and that's where he's going to swim,'' Bowman said. ''And that's it.''
It doesn't have to be. It's not too late to make this right.
According to FINA rules, there's a June 15 deadline for each country to submit its entry list - still a full month away. There's another potential stumbling block - a preliminary deadline of March 2, in which countries submitted the total number of swimmers they would take to Russia - but Marculescu could waive that rule with the stroke of a pen.
''I'm pretty Cornel would let me swim for any country I wanted to,'' Phelps said, chuckling loudly. ''But I'm going to respect the decision that was made.''
Jessica Hardy, who missed the 2008 Olympics while serving a one-year suspension for a doping violation, said USA Swimming is sending an important message by sticking to its original penalties: No one is bigger than the sport.
Not even Phelps.
''Consistency is important,'' she told the AP. ''Having gone through a suspension myself, I think it's important to be fair across the board.''
For those who only pay attention to swimming at the Olympics, Phelps has turned in some of his greatest performances at the world championships.
- In 2003 at Barcelona, Phelps set world records in two different events about an hour apart.
- In 2007 at Melbourne, Australia, he matched Mark Spitz's performance at the 1972 Munich Olympics by winning seven gold medals, a tantalizing preview of the record eight golds he would claim a year later at the Beijing Olympics.
- In 2009 at Rome, during the height of the rubberized suit era, rival Milorad Cavic taunted Phelps for sticking with a supposedly inferior model, only to be edged at the wall in an epic 100-meter butterfly that set off perhaps the most raucous celebration of Phelps' career.
While Phelps is best known for the 18 golds and 22 medals overall that he's won at the Olympics, his world championship haul is even greater: 26 golds, six silvers and one bronze.
''As a fan, I'd love to see him try it again,'' Bowman said. ''But that's just not in the cards.''
While we admire Wielgus for taking a tough stand against DUI, and we're not in any way justifying Phelps' conduct that September night, the initial six-month suspension was sufficient.
Now, it's time for common sense to prevail.
The world's best swimmers will be in Russia this summer.
The greatest of them all should be there, too.
AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf in Rome contributed to this report.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963