Like many record breakers at the FINA world championships in Rome last week, Rebecca Soni greeted her moment in history with a shrug. Swimming in the semifinals of the 100-meter breaststroke, the Freehold, N.J., native had just lowered the world standard to 1:04.84, and a reporter awaited her reaction. "Eh, it feels O.K.," Soni said. "I'm just not sure what world records mean at this meet."
With new suit restrictions coming, the worlds marked the final laps of the sport's "swimsuit era," when racers who go for the gold first wiggle into the polyurethane. Swimmers from 14 countries set 43 records in Rome. (There were only nine set in the last post-Olympic worlds.)
The speed caught even veterans off guard. In the 100 back Aaron Peirsol, who had set the world record three weeks earlier, conserved his energy for the finals ... and never made it out of the semis. "Swimming's never been like this," said Peirsol, "and it won't be [like this] again."
Times started plummeting in early 2008 when Speedo introduced the LZR Racer, a suit with polyurethane panels that reduce water drag. Rival manufacturers insisted that the design ran counter to FINA bylaws prohibiting devices that "aid ... speed, buoyancy or endurance."
FINA looked the other way and got the exciting Olympics it wanted, so other suit makers upped the ante. Germany's Paul Biedermann, wearing an entirely polyurethane Arena suit, beat Michael Phelps—still racing in his Speedo—in the 200 free and lowered the world mark by 0.96 seconds, to 1:42.00. Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, threatened to keep Phelps out of FINA's meets until it implemented new suit limitations. Last Friday, FINA announced that it would reduce suit length and limit fabrics to simpler textiles beginning Jan. 1.
The suit set-to added to the tension in Phelps's showdown with Milorad Cavic, the Serbian he edged out in the 100 fly in Beijing. Cavic squawked that Phelps should wear a new suit in Rome so he'd have no excuse if he lost. Phelps used the comments as fuel, rallying from half a body length back at the turn to outtouch Cavic. "Things motivate me," said Phelps, who finished the meet with five golds and one silver. "That's just how I tick."
Now the clock is ticking on the apparel wars that have so distorted the sport. "It'll be cool having all the swimmers wearing the same suits," Phelps said. "We'll be able to talk about swimming again."
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GOLD: Paul Biedermann. The German not only took down Michael Phelps in the 200 freestyle, but he also won the 400 free, lowering Ian Thorpe's 2002 world record by a hundredth of a second, to 3:40.07.
SILVER: Federica Pellegrini (below). Italian favorite became the first woman to break the four-minute barrier in the 400-meter freestyle, winning the gold medal in 3:59.15 on the competition's opening day. Pellegrini came back three nights later to win the 200 free in a world-record 1:52.98.
BRONZE: Ryan Lochte. The American won four golds in Rome, taking advantage of Phelps's absence from the individual medleys to win both and lower the world record in the 200 IM to 1:54.10. He also took gold in both freestyle relays.
Photographs by HEINZ KLUETMEIER
GAME FACE An exultant Phelps won his testy rematch with Cavic in the 100 fly, but even Phelps's outdated suit—and the sleeker model worn by Slovenia's Emil Tahirovic (inset)—will soon be banned.