It was not the opening act Michael Phelps had envisioned for his final year as a professional swimmer: In the men's 4 √ó 100 freestyle relay at the world championships in Shanghai on Sunday, the 14-time Olympic gold medalist turned in the second-fastest leadoff leg of the field. But then he watched helplessly as his teammates struggled to a third-place finish behind France and a surprisingly swift Australian team, which won its first world title in the event since 2001. Unlike three years ago in Beijing, there was no miracle finish to save the Americans. Nathan Adrian swam a strong anchor leg, but Jason Lezak—who swam the fastest split in history as anchor to keep Phelps's bid for eight Olympic gold medals alive in Beijing—delivered what Lezak lamented as an "average" swim (48.15 seconds) as the third leg. Garrett Weber-Gale, who swam second, called his own sluggish 48.33 split "embarrassing." Phelps said of the bronze medal result, "It's going to give us motivation for the rest of the meet."
Finding motivation in the pool has rarely been easy for Phelps since he hauled those eight Olympic golds home in 2008. In the two years following, he often blew off practice in favor of playing golf and "being lazy," he says. As his pool time diminished, so too did his dominance. Last summer he lost to rival Ryan Lochte in a major 200 individual medley for the first time, and this spring he lost three straight times in his signature event, the 200 butterfly, ending a winning streak that reached back nine years.
A turning point came several months ago. "If I want to accomplish my goals, I have to do it myself," says Phelps, who plans to retire after the London Olympics next year. "For me to show up for a workout, that's on me. I have to want to do that. I think over the last six to eight months, that's been the case. I've been excited and happy to be around the pool. I feel like my old self."
Given his truncated training, Phelps's London program will be less ambitious than the one he swam in Beijing; he has already scratched a defense of his title in the punishing 400 IM. But as of last week, all the events on his schedule in Shanghai—the 100 and 200 butterfly, the 200 freestyle, the 200 IM and all three relays—were still in play for the Games.
How many golds can Phelps add to his pile next summer? The loss in the 4 √ó 100 free relay, the USA's first in a major international competition since 2004, underscores the difficulty Phelps—or anyone—will face in running the table in London. As Lezak says, "The rest of the world is definitely getting faster."
Standing in the bowels of the Oriental Sports Center long after Sunday night's session had ended, Phelps sounded galvanized. "It is a good thing that it's not the Olympics," he said of the relay loss, "because I don't think we like the feeling we have right now."
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Holding His Breath
There's one race Michael Phelps really wants to swim at the London Olympics: a 200 freestyle final that includes Australia's five-time Olympic gold medalist Ian Thorpe. The Thorpedo, who simultaneously held the world records in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle for several years, abruptly retired in 2006 at age 24, before Phelps had a chance to avenge his one individual loss in the last two Olympics. (In the 200 free in Athens in 2004, won by Thorpe, Phelps came in third.) Now 28, Thorpe is training in Switzerland for a possible London berth. Phelps is so eager to take on the man he once bested in the 200 IM (at worlds in 2003) but never caught in the freestyle that, he says, "it kind of stinks you have to wait a year, if it happens."
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (PHELPS)
SHANGHAI SURPRISE A refocused Phelps got his team off to a good start, but the U.S. settled for a 4 √ó 100 free bronze.
GABRIELE PUTZU/EPA (THORPE)