MONTREAL — This isn’t the record-breaking phenomenon from Barcelona. Or the medal-hoarding icon from Athens. This is Michael Phelps, the work in progress.
Phelps showed his vulnerable side again last night when he was left in the wake of the 100-meter freestyle at the world swimming championships.
“Every swimmer has a weakness,” he said. “I want to fix my weaknesses to make me a better swimmer.”
Phelps bounced back to win his third gold medal of the meet in one of his signature events, repeating as world champion in the 200 individual medley.
Still, another trip to the podium wasn’t enough to restore the aura of invincibility.
Phelps may be a once-in-a-generation swimmer, but he’s not same guy who broke five world records at the 2003 Barcelona world championships or won a record-tying eight Olympic medals in Athens last summer.
“In 2003, I was in the best shape that I’ve ever been in my entire life. Last summer was something that I’d always dreamt of,” said Phelps, who collected six gold medals in Athens. “This doesn’t even compare to those meets. It’s almost more of a steppingstone than anything.”
In a way, Phelps is much like golfer Tiger Woods, who twice changed his swing because he wanted to improve on something that seemed impeccable. Woods came through both ordeals a better player, and Phelps believes he will be a better swimmer when he gets to Beijing in 2008.
At this meet, he substituted the 100 and 400 free for two races he won in Athens and likely would have won again in Montreal.
“A lot of new obstacles are coming. A lot of new feelings are coming,” Phelps said. “I’m just taking it for what it is and learning from the mistakes I had this year.”
While Filippo Magnini of Italy relegated Phelps to also-ran status, Poland’s Otylia Jedrzejczak turned in the top performance of the night, breaking her own world record in the 200 butterfly.
Australia’s Jess Schipper led until Jedrzejczak pulled slightly ahead with 25 meters to go. Schipper made a desperate lunge to the wall but came up short of the winning time — 2 minutes, 5.61 seconds.
Jedrzejczak broke her previous record of 2:05.78, set three years ago, and needed every bit of it to claim the gold. Schipper also eclipsed the old record in 2:05.65, but it was only good enough for second.
“I don’t think … I can win this without Jessica. She swam with power,” said Jedrzejczak, who blinked back tears on the medal stand and held up a banner that said, “Polska.”
An Australian coach claimed that Jedrzejczak benefited from an illegal move on the final turn, but no protest was planned because instant replay can’t be used. Japan’s Yuko Nakanishi took the bronze, nearly four seconds behind the top two.
Magnini held off the South African duo of Roland Schoeman and Ryk Neethling, winning in a meet-record time of 48.12.
And Phelps? He was last at the turn and managed to pass only one swimmer before touching in 48.99 — failing to match his time from the semifinals a day earlier.
“I wasn’t able to get out with those guys,” the 20-year-old American said. “I was in their wake, and I was just destroyed.”
At least Phelps made it to the final. In the 400 free, he didn’t even get out of the preliminaries.
Magnini, in the lane next to Phelps, celebrated his victory by balancing himself atop the rope. The Italian improved on his personal best by a staggering 61-hundredths of a second.
“This was a goal for my career but not for now,” Magnini said. “To reach my goal so soon is fantastic.”
Schoeman was on world-record pace at the turn but faded to the silver in 48.28, just ahead of Neethling at 48.34.
Phelps still can win six medals in Montreal, which would equal his performance at the 2003 worlds. But that might be viewed as a disappointment after his Olympian feat — a sign of the staggering expectations that accompany Phelps every time he dives in the water.
In the 200 IM, Phelps trailed Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh after the butterfly and backstroke legs but fought back to take a minuscule lead during the breaststroke.
Getting a great push off the wall, Phelps came out of the water with a bigger edge and held it all the way to the end with a powerful freestyle stroke — a more familiar sight after his disappointment an hour earlier.
Phelps won in 1:56.68, nearly a second ahead of Cseh. Another American, Ryan Lochte, took the bronze.
The United States also won the women’s 800 free relay. Australia led most of the way, but two-time Olympian Kaitlin Sandeno — swimming for the first time in the meet — overtook Linda MacKenzie just before the final turn and went on to finish in 7:53.70, a new meet record.
Natalie Coughlin and Sandeno were holdovers from the gold-medal winning team in Athens, joined by Katie Hoff and Whitney Myers.
Australia did capture gold in the women’s 50 backstroke. Giaan Rooney won the non-Olympic event in 28.63, ahead of China’s Gao Chang (28.69) and Germany’s Antje Buschschulte (28.72).