MONTREAL - Already having accomplished so much in the sport of swimming, Baltimore's Michael Phelps came into the FINA World Championships eager to test his weaknesses, not his strengths.
And so, thumbing his nose at conventional wisdom, he dropped two events he was sure to dominate - the 200-meter butterfly and the 400 individual medley - and added two events in which he is merely mortal: The 100 and 400 freestyle.
The experiment, ambitious as it was, failed to pay off in medals yesterday, as Phelps finished seventh in the 100 freestyle, just four days after he missed the 400 freestyle final entirely.
But that didn't mean the experiment wasn't a success. Phelps still won a gold medal yesterday in the 200 individual medley, tying a championship record by finishing in 1 minute, 56.68 seconds. And in the eyes of Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, this was only the first phase in the march toward the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
"I think it's a step in the right direction that we want to take," Phelps said. "It opens things up for us to really get with the program for what we're going to do in Beijing. ... Every swimmer has a weakness, and one of my coach's favorite quotes is, `Your greatest weakness is your greatest strength.' I want to try new things, and I want to fix my weaknesses to make me a better swimmer."
Phelps' greatest weakness right now as a swimmer is that he's not very fast out of the blocks, and in a short race like the 100 freestyle, it's extremely difficult to make up ground.
"With the 100, I wanted to see where Michael stacks up on a pure speed basis with the very best people," Bowman said. "And he was about where I expected. He's not fast enough yet to go out with them, and with so many guys going out fast, at the turn, he's caught in their wake. So it's hard for him to come back [and make up ground]. It's a double whammy."
Phelps' greatest strength, however, continues to be his versatility. Though other swimmers may be faster than him with a specific stroke, no one can hang with Phelps when he combines all four. In the 200 individual medley yesterday, Phelps trailed Laszlo Cseh of Hungary after 100 meters, but he passed him during the breaststroke, and then pulled away for an easy victory over the final 50 meters.
"I knew it was going to be a great race," said Phelps, who had just an hour of rest after racing in the 100 freestyle. "I expected Laszlo to put up great time, and I knew Ryan [Lochte, who finished third] would be tough. Going into it, I just wanted to try and relax a bit, and do what I had to do."
Though most of the attention yesterday was on Phelps, the U.S. women's 800 freestyle relay team notched an impressive win, mostly thanks to the performances of 16-year-old Katie Hoff of Towson, and Kaitlin Sandeno, 22, of Lake Forest, Calif.
Hoff swam the second leg of the relay, and when she jumped into the pool, the United States was in third, and trailed Australia by 1.76 seconds. By the time she was done, giving way to Whitney Myers, the U.S. trailed by just .26 of a second.
"I kept looking over and seeing feet by my head, and I was like, `OK, I've got to keep going,'" Hoff said. "I really wanted to keep us even at the 400 [meter] mark."
Sandeno, who might just be the most underrated swimmer on the U.S. women's team, swam a perfect anchor, taking the lead with 50 meters to go, and then holding off Australia's Linda Mackenzie for the gold. The United States' time, 7 minutes, 53.70 seconds, tied a championship record.
Part of the reason Phelps has been pushing himself this year in the freestyle sprint events is that he desperately wants to take part in the electricity, camaraderie and tradition of United States freestyle relay teams. Though Phelps was the toast of Athens, winning eight medals, his inclusion on the 400 freestyle relay team was somewhat controversial. Sprinter Gary Hall claimed Phelps was getting special treatment by U.S. coaches.
"Obviously, one of the reasons for this is we want him to be a viable option in all the relays," Bowman said. "But the other part is it's going to make him a better swimmer in all of his other events."
Today: 100-meter butterfly (preliminaries, semifinals); 800 freestyle relay (semifinals, finals)
Tomorrow: 100 butterfly (finals)
Sunday: 400 medley relay (semifinals, finals)
Sunday: 400 individual medley (semifinals, finals)