Sunday, July 18, 2010

Phelps in Uncharted Waters?

For the most part, the biggest American swimming stars have swam well so far this year. Some, like Rebecca Soni, Matt Grevers, and Eric Shanteau, have posted blazing times already, while others, such as Ryan Lochte, Natalie Coughlin, and Jessica Hardy, have been strong enough in-season to make it clear they will be ready for the big one in a few weeks in Irvine. One swimmer, however, has clearly struggled to regain his usual in-season form this year, and lingering questions remain about his chances at both Nationals and Pan Pacs to post times comparable to his best rivals. That man is Michael Phelps.

Since 2007, Phelps has made a habit of posting absolutely blazing times in the lead-up to his taper meet. In 2007, he clipped his own 200 fly world record at the Missouri Grand Prix, a mere six weeks out from Worlds, where he walloped another second and a half off the mark. In 2008, he had posted world-leading times in the 200 free (1:45.71), 200 fly (1:53.31), and 200 IM (1:57.39) by early March, all of which stood until the U.S. Olympic Trials began. Within the next three months before Trials, he added a top-ranked time in the 100 fly (51.04), second-ranked 100 back (53.42), and third-ranked 200 back (1:55.84).

As Phelps tuned up throughout the year for his historic performance in Beijing, one event just wasn't clicking. At the Missouri Grand Prix, Phelps swam a failed to break 4:14, finishing nearly three seconds off his meet record of 4:11.30 from the previous year, which had come just before setting a stunning world record of 4:06.22 at the Worlds in Melbourne. He made gradual improvement throughout the season, posting a 4:13-mid by the Santa Clara Grand Prix, but he was still dissatisfied, claiming that his backstroke felt off. Later in the meet, he beat Aaron Peirsol in the 100 back. Obviously no problem with the backstroke.

At the Olympic Trials, Phelps swam a season-best of 4:13.43 in prelims, finishing behind rival Ryan Lochte's 4:13.38. He freely acknowledged not being happy with the swim and he later admitted his heart rate and lactate skyrocketed after the swim, clearly indicating nervousness going into the event final. In any case, his struggles throughout the season and prelims quickly evaporated as the final came around. In a very memorable race, Phelps went out quickly on the fly and moved ahead of his world record pace by the first 50 of backstroke. He would remain under pace for the remainder of the race, but Lochte pulled even on the breaststroke. Phelps, however, put Lochte in his place with an amazing kickout of the final wall, and he posted a world record-time of 4:05.25 for the win, with Lochte coming in second at 4:06.08, also under Phelps' prior record. Phelps improved to 4:03.84 for gold in Beijing, more than ten seconds faster than his time from the Missouri meet.

So what does this have to do with his present situation? After the Paris Open, where he claimed to be, once again, disappointed with his swims, Phelps claimed he had not done the necessary work to make improvements. He did improve on his season-bests in the 200 fly (1:55.70), 200 free (1:47.54), and 100 free (49.44). Perhaps, though, he has done the work, but it hasn't clicked yet. Clearly, in 2008, things didn't click in the 400 IM until the right time, but he still managed to post one of the most impressive swims ever seen at the Beijing Olympics. He could still be waiting for his work to pay off, and after ten years of constant perfection from Phelps, there are few reasons to believe this summer will turn out much different.


  1. This summer may turn out to be a rerun of '05 or even worse--really, really subpar by his standards, but otherwise still pretty good. Or maybe the slower in-season swimming this year is as much a reflection of changes due to age as it is his inconsistent training, and he'll exceed my expectations.

    I'm just relieved that he can probably get away with slow swims (for him) in the fly events and the 200m IM at Nationals and still qualify for '11 World Champs with plenty of time to improve. I care less about his results at PanPacs than I do that he's in a position to swim everything he wants to at the '11 WCs. It would suck beyond belief if our best swimmer in those events wasn't able to compete due to the qualifying meet being held so far in advance and because he left it until a little too late to get serious about his training.

  2. Rumor has it that until recently, Bowman couldn't get him to train regularly. Apparently there's been a severe lack of motivation. Wonder why?

  3. >>Apparently there's been a severe lack of motivation. Wonder why?

    Because he was already "too best", and maybe fears to be beaten too hard, so the beat way to overcome this is to say "i did not even try too hard, you know me"