From a no-name in the swim world a year ago, Germany's Paul Biedermann blasted onto the front stage as he put Michael Phelps into silver medal submission in the 200-meter freestyle at the world championships in Rome. Touching the wall in one minute, 42 seconds flat, Biedermann beat Phelps by 1.22 seconds and lowered the world record Phelps set in the Beijing Olympics from 1:42.96.
Phelps' first major individual defeat in four years highlighted the effect his six-month hiatus after the Beijing Games has had on his performances, even though he swam the second-fastest time of his career. "I control what I do," Phelps said after the race. "I've never had a meet where I've gone into it like this, with this much time off. I have to get back into the pool. I probably didn't prepare the best way I should have. I've never taken six months off. Deep inside, I can't be mad, but I can't be pleased."
Phelps built the briefest of leads against Biedermann in the final, but fell behind after 25 meters and never caught up. Though Biedermann's edge was marginal after 100 meters (50.12 to 50.25), he pulled away over the last hundred, leaving Phelps behind the way Phelps usually leaves others behind. As he did, a group of more than 100 fans wearing German team colors broke into song and sported the letters across their chests that spelled out his name.
The result reignited discussion of the advanced swimsuits that some swimmers are using. Over the last few years, the full body suit and the streamlined, water repelling materials have helped swimmers lower world records at an alarming rate. Last year there were 108 new world records in the sport, nearly one every three days. But even the suits swimmers wore last year, like the LZR Racer from Phelps' sponsor Speedo, have been outdone by new designs and materials that have thrown the sport into apparel chasing chaos.
Phelps, under contract with Speedo, has stuck to his (relatively advanced) old suits, rather than adopt the new models that are made entirely of polyurethane and float just like rubber rafts. The LZR suit only has polyurethane panels in defined areas of the body. Confused? So is FINA, the sport's governing body, which has banned some suits, but has deferred the ultimate decisions about what to allow and to get rid of for good until sometime after the championships. Biedermann, who switched to a polyurethane-based suit by Arena this year, has said he thinks the suit gives him an additional two seconds.
Phelps will no doubt look upon this the same way he looked at the 2005 World Championships in Montreal, where he swam well, but not up to his lofty standards. He was smoked in the 100 fly there by teammate Ian Crocker and proclaimed the meet "a real wake-up call." That was his propeller for the rest of the quadrennium. Then, as now, he had taken time away from his training. It was four months then and six months now.
The bottom line is nobody uses defeats as motivation better than Phelps. He knows how badly he needs to get into shape and have what he often calls "a fire under my butt." The post-Olympic year is the right time for the smoldering to start.