Ailing Phelps suffers first loss since July, end of 35-race streak

His unbeaten run ends in 200 freestyle, followed by withdrawal from 400 IM


April 03, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS - Swimming's man of distinction experienced a rarity last night.

Michael Phelps lost a race for the first time since last July, as South African Ryk Neethling beat him in the 200 freestyle at the Counsilman Classic.

Complaining of a sour stomach, Phelps was then a last-minute scratch from the 400 individual medley. The most versatile swimmer in the world is also its sturdiest; Phelps last pulled out of a race in 1997.

This morning's preliminaries will determine if Phelps will compete in the 200 butterfly and 200 breaststroke tonight. He might sit out today, in an attempt to return refreshed tomorrow, when he's entered in the 200 backstroke and 100 freestyle at this USA Swimming Grand Prix meet.

After he withdrew from the 400 IM, one of the three events in which he's the world-record holder, Phelps left the IU Natatorium with his mother, Debbie, and returned to his hotel. He was unavailable to comment; North Baltimore Aquatic Club coach Bob Bowman expects Phelps' illness to be brief.

"Last night [Thursday] after dinner, he didn't feel good," Bowman said. "I think he ate something bad. With rest, hopefully he'll be able to come back."

Phelps spent nearly six hours at yesterday morning's preliminaries, at one point shivering under a towel. He got little rest before last night's finals. The 18th seed in the 200 breaststroke, Phelps expected to lose here, but he didn't figure his 35-race unbeaten streak would end last night.

The 18-year-old has gone from America's youngest male Olympian in 68 years to the youngest man to set a world-record in a stopwatch sport to the first man to set world records in different events in the same day.

That highlight came last July, at the world championships. The next day, a world-record effort wasn't good enough to beat Ian Crocker in the 100 butterfly. Phelps hadn't loss since in a standard swim meet, until he ran into Neethling.

In command throughout the race, the Tucson resident won in 1 minute, 48.17 seconds. Phelps came through in 1:48.79, nearly three seconds off of his American record. Neethling downplayed the outcome.

"We're in different training cycles, his Olympic trials are in three months, mine are in two weeks," said Neethling. "I don't read too much into it, but it's nice. I'll get some coverage back home."

The 200 freestyle went off at 6:20 p.m. At 7:30, Bowman and Phelps had an earnest discussion on the pool deck. Fifteen minutes later, when the 400 IM finalists were introduced, Lane Four, reserved for the fastest qualifier, was empty.

Since the 2000 Olympics, Phelps has routinely entered five or six events per meet, simulating stress that will toughen him for a run at the seven gold medals won by Mark Spitz in 1972. If this had been July's Olympic Trials, he probably would have gutted out last night.

"I had to nudge Michael to swim the 200 free, then we were going to see about the 400 IM," Bowman said. "He still should have won that race [the 200 freestyle]. This is perfect preparation for what's to come, because he has to be able to adapt to anything."

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