MELBOURNE, Australia -- Twelve years old.
That's how young Michael Phelps estimated he was the last time he cut as much as 1.62 seconds off his personal best with one swim. That's what 12-year-old swimmers are supposed to do. They're awkward, lanky and have high-pitched voices, inconsistent technique and little muscle definition.
They're just learning, growing into their bodies, so it's possible to shave big chunks off their personal best in an event like the 200-meter butterfly, where anything approaching 2 minutes, 30 seconds would, at age 12, be considered exceptional.
You're not supposed to do it when breaking a world record, but that's exactly what Phelps did yesterday at the FINA World Championships, touching the wall at 1:52.09, more than three seconds ahead of his nearest competitor, China's Wu Peng.
World records are supposed to be broken by hundredths of a second, tenths at the most. They're supposed to be whittled down over time, one tiny tick of the stopwatch every couple of years, with even the most marginal improvements garnering huge headlines and celebration.
In swimming, 1.62 seconds is a staggering amount of time, not that different from Bob Beamon soaring nearly two feet past the world record in the 1968 Olympic long jump in Mexico City. Beamon was 22 at the time, just a year older than Phelps.
But in the opinion of U.S. Swim coach Mark Schubert, what Phelps did may have been even better.
"I don't think it's comparable to Beamon's performance because that was a lifetime, out-of-body experience that we never saw again," Schubert said, alluding to the fact that Beamon never broke the 29-foot barrier again after jumping 29 feet, 2 1/2 inches. "I think we're going to see an even better time from Michael. I just think he's that good."
The more apt comparison may be Tiger Woods winning the 2000 U.S. Open by a record 15 strokes. That same year, Woods also won the British Open by eight strokes.
Either way, it's a stunning achievement.
"I guess we're doing something right in the pool back home," Phelps joked, adding that weight training has increased his overall strength in the past two years.
The Maryland native was so good yesterday that he left not only the crowd in awe, but his fellow competitors as well.
"I'm honored to have swam in that race with him," Russia's Nikolai Skvortsov, the bronze-medal winner in the 200 butterfly, said through an interpreter.
Wu, who won the silver medal, could only shake his head with respect right before the medal ceremony. He looked like he'd just seen Superman step out of a phone booth and slip into Speedos. Wu, who represents China's best hope for swimming medals in Beijing next year, told the Chinese media he was realistic about his chances in the 200 butterfly.
"To secure that [gold] medal is impossible," Wu said through an interpreter. "I realize I have much distance between Michael Phelps and myself."
Surprisingly, Phelps -- who broke his 19th world record and won his third gold medal here in his quest for eight -- said he felt weary in the warm-up pool before his race.
"My body just didn't feel good," Phelps said. "My arms felt sore. I did about 100 or 200, got out, and that was about it. It was just warming up. [Tuesday] was a tough day. And just getting over that, trying to get my body ready and my brain ready, I think was a big part of it. Once I got focused, it was just sort of game time. Time to go out and do what I trained to do."
When swimming is broadcast on television, a red line runs across the screen denoting where the world record time is in relation to the field. Most of the time, when a record is broken, a swimmer stretches for the wall in the last 5 meters, getting little more than his fingertips ahead of the red line. During his 200-meter butterfly, the red line was near Phelps' feet.
"That was amazing," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach. "When I saw that line the last 50, it was amazing."
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Phelps this week is that, even though he has smashed two world records, he's not even close to being done. This morning, he was to compete in the final of the 200-meter individual medley, an event in which he already holds the world record.
"I just want to go out after it like I did the last two races and have another exciting one," Phelps said.
Before the World Championships, the buzz in the media, both American and Australian, centered on who deserved to call himself the best of all time: Phelps or Ian Thorpe.
For the most part, the Australian media are saying the debate is finished. On the back page of the Herald Sun, Australia's largest newspaper, Phelps was pictured rising out of the water in mid-fly. The headline, stretched across the entire tabloid, was only one word. GREATEST.
Today / / 200-meter individual medley final
Tomorrow / / 4 x 200-meter freestyle relay final
Saturday / / 100-meter butterfly final
Sunday / / 400-meter individual medley final; 4 x 100-meter medley relay