As Michael Phelps stared at the pool deck in Montreal's Parc Jean Dapeau on Sunday morning, he looked like a puzzled student gazing at a science experiment gone awry, which, in a sense, he was. Phelps, 20, had faded badly in his heat of the 400-meter freestyle at the world championships and failed to qualify for the evening final. The event was not one of the eight in which Phelps won a medal last summer at the Athens Olympics but rather a trial swim into uncharted waters.
This year Phelps has added the 400 and 100 frees to his international repertoire, hoping to test himself against different opponents and measure the effects of the 10 pounds of muscle he has added since last summer. To compensate, he has dropped the 200 butterfly and the 400 individual medley, events in which he holds world records and won gold in Athens. "I wanted a new challenge," says Phelps, whose goal was to win eight medals in Montreal. "I wanted to see how my body would react to something different." Not well. He ran out of gas after the final turn of the 400, finishing in 3:50.53. The race marked the first time that he had failed to qualify for an international final and broke a string of 15 straight events at an Olympics or world championships in which he'd won a medal.
In an era when many athletes protect their reputations by avoiding rivals, Phelps embraces competition. Just as he passed up other races with safer medal prospects in Athens, choosing instead to swim the 200 freestyle against Australia's Ian Thorpe, he began training for the 400 free this year specifically to confront Thorpe and his teammate Grant Hackett, who had won gold and silver, respectively, at that distance in 2004. Unfortunately for Phelps, Thorpe took the year off, and Hackett won Sunday's final virtually unchallenged in 3:42.91.
Before the evening session Phelps sought out Hackett to wish him well. The two became friends while training together for a week on Australia's Gold Coast in 2003. Hackett, in turn, wished Phelps and the U.S. team luck in the evening's 4√ó100 freestyle relay. "Straight off, knowing Michael, I felt sorry for my mates in the relay," Hackett said later that night.
Swimming the leadoff leg, Phelps was clocked at 49.17, staking the U.S. to a one-meter lead. Neil Walker, Nate Dusing and Jason Lezak widened the margin as the team set an American record (3:13.77) and broke a seven-year losing streak at the worlds and Olympics in a race the U.S. once dominated.
Away from the pool, Phelps has undergone an occasionally bumpy transition since Athens, including his November arrest for DUI. He enrolled last winter at Michigan (he's studying sports management) and bought a four-story town house near the Wolverines' pool. "I'm trying to expand my horizons," Phelps says. Last week he attended the premiere for Unfiltered, a behind-the-scenes documentary about him and teammate Ian Crocker, and next month he'll tour China for the first time, for his newest sponsor, Matsunichi, the electronics company that has signed him for a reported $4 million over four years. "New things bring out Michael's best," his coach, Bob Bowman, said on Sunday, hoping that a bad race would be one of them.