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Feature Articles

Phelps suffers rare loss amid suit controversy
Associated Press
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Phelps suffers rare loss amid suit controversy Associated Press

Updated: July 28, 2009

ROME (AP) - The winner draped himself triumphantly on the lane rope, thrusting his right hand in the air to celebrate a world record.

It's a familiar scene for Michael Phelps. This time, all he could do was watch.

Germany's Paul Biedermann handed Phelps his first major individual loss in four years -- and snatched away his world record, too -- with a stunning win in the 200-meter freestyle at the world swimming championships on Tuesday.

Virtually unknown outside his country before this meet, Biedermann has erased Ian Thorpe from the record book in the 400 free and knocked off the winningest Olympian in history -- all in the space of three days.

"I'm not pleased," Phelps said, acknowledging he wasn't in the best shape after taking six months off to revel in his great haul of China.

But Biedermann's performance stirred up even more debate about the high-tech bodysuits that are being banned by the sport's governing body beginning in 2010. Biedermann wore an Arena X-Glide, one of those polyurethane suits that is generally considered faster than the Speedo LZR Racer, the once-revolutionary suit Phelps wore.

When the suit situation gets all sorted out, Phelps can't wait for the rematch -- on what he considers equal terms.

Great sports streaksPhotos: All good things must come to an end. Check out our list of famous sports streaks ... and how they met their demise. "It's going to be fun next year," he said, "when swimming is back to swimming."

Biedermann relished his win but acknowledged that he had a technological edge.

"The suits make a difference," the 22-year-old German said. "I hope there will be a time when I can beat Michael Phelps without these suits. I hope next year. I hope it's really soon."

Biedermann's upset launched another night of record breaking at the world championships. Four more world standards were bumped from the books, bringing the total to 15 through the first three days of an eight-day meet. That equals the number of records set at the last worlds in Melbourne two years ago, and will soon go right on past the staggering 25 worlds marks set last summer at the Olympics.

Britain's Gemma Spofforth went the fastest ever to win the 100 backstroke; Italy's Federica Pellegrini fired up the home crowd with her second world record of the championships in a semifinal heat of the 200 free; and South Africa's Cameron van der Burgh posted his own mark in the semis of the 50 breaststroke, a non-Olympic event.

But Biedermann's win -- and Phelps' loss -- stood out on a warm summer night at the Foro Italico.

Biedermann said after his 400 free win that the suit made him two seconds faster, but Phelps passed on the chance to wear one of the latest-generation suits. He's been sponsored by Speedo since he was a teenager and wasn't about to abandon the company that paid him a $1 million bonus after he won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics.

Shortly before the race, FINA confirmed that a ban on bodysuits will go into effect by May 2010, making this the last major competition where buoyancy aiding suits are allowed.

"It's not my problem," Biedermann said. "It's the problem of FINA. They should handle it really fast."

They'd better if they want Phelps around. His coach, Bob Bowman, said he might just withhold the sport's star attraction from any meets until the new rules are implemented.

Phelps' look matched his remark after losing his first major race in four years: "I'm not pleased." (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

"We've lost all the history of the sport," Bowman said. "Does a 10-year-old boy in Baltimore want to break Paul Biedermann's record? Is that going to make him join swimming?"

When told of FINA's timetable for bringing back suits that cover less skin and go back to being made out of textile materials, Bowman scoffed.

"Well, then probably expect Michael not to swim until they are implemented. I'm done with this. It has to be implemented immediately," the coach said. "The sport is in shambles right now and they better do something or they're going to lose their guy who fills these suits."

Phelps was ahead off the blocks, but Biedermann surged into the lead by the first flip and steadily extended his advantage. By the finish, he was a full body-length ahead of Phelps.

"Biedermann just took off," Phelps said. "He took it to a new level in that race."

While Biedermann celebrated his time of 1 minute, 42.00 seconds, which knocked off Phelps' world mark of 1:42.96 from the Beijing Olympics, the American stared at the scoreboard for a few seconds, then headed toward the side of the pool without acknowledging the swimmer who had just handed him his first big individual loss since July 30, 2005, at the world championships in Montreal.

Coach: Fix this or elseMichael Phelps' coach has threatened to withhold the swimmer from international meets until FINA bans high-tech bodysuits.

Swimming's governing body, FINA, upheld a decision Tuesday to outlaw the suits next year, although the ban might not take effect until April or May -- three or four months later than expected.

Told of the possible delay, Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, said FINA better "do something or they're going to lose their guy who fills these seats."

Bowman spoke immediately after Phelps was upset by unheralded Paul Biedermann of Germany in the 200-meter freestyle at the world championships. Biedermann wore a 100 percent polyurethane Arena suit, while Phelps stayed with last year's LZR Racer from Speedo. -- AP That night, Ian Crocker beat Phelps in the 100 butterfly. Bouncing back from that disappointment, Phelps went 5-for-5 in his individual events at the 2007 worlds in Melbourne, then duplicated the feat at Beijing, where three relay wins gave him an iconic sporting achievement.

"Theoretically, that was a pretty good swim for me, three-tenths off my best time after taking six months off," said Phelps, referring to his layoff after the Olympics. "I mean, I'm not happy, but I know I didn't train much this year. For right now, I'll take it."

Just don't think he's satisfied with finishing second. That was obvious from the awards ceremony.

Phelps started to walk away after the top three got their medals, then was motioned back to the top rung to pose for pictures with the winner and bronze medalist Danila Izotov of Russia.

Instead of being the center of attention, Phelps had to stand off to the side, looking glumly toward the cameras. As they walked around the deck, Biedermann danced in delight while Phelps managed a few forced smiles when he looked up toward the stands.

Finally, Phelps climbed toward the stands to drop off a stuffed mascot with his mother, Debbie, who leaned over to give him a consoling hug. Before her son even left the pool deck, he pulled off his silver medal, as if he wanted no part of that consolation prize.

Phelps did come back about an hour later to qualify for the final of the 200 butterfly on what figures to be his toughest day of the meet. He posted the second-fastest time in the semifinals, just 13-hundredths behind Japan's Takeshi Matsuda. The final is Wednesday night, a chance for Phelps to get back on the top step of the podium.

Phelps promptly ditched the silver medal after the ceremony. (Mark J.Terrill / Associated Press)

American Rebecca Soni won the 100 breaststroke though she came up just short of her record time in the semifinals. Soni touched in 1:04.93, nine-hundredths off the mark from the previous day. Russia's Yuliya Efimove took silver and American Kasey Carlson was third.

Taking advantage of Aaron Peirsol's shocking elimination in the semifinals of the 100 back, Japan's Junya Koga captured the world title in 52.26. Peirsol went faster than that (51.94) in setting a world record this month, but all he could do was watch from the stands as Koga ended his reign as three-time champion. Helge Meeuw of Germany won silver and Spain's Aschwin Grigoriadis claimed the bronze.

Italy's Alessia Filippi won the 1,500 free, another event that's not on the Olympic program. Denmark's Lotte Friis won silver and Romania's Camelia Potec took the bronze.

Spofforth rallied in the 100 back to win in 58.12, beating the mark of 58.48 set a day earlier by Anastasia Zueva. The Russian also went under her old mark (58.18) but it was only good enough for silver this time. Australia's Emily Seebohm took the bronze.

While Phelps still has four more events at these world championships, but he's already looking ahead to another shot at Biedermann.

"Hopefully," the American said, "next summer we'll be able to really go head-to-head and I'll be in jammers."


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