Michael Phelps mag cover 2003
Courtesy of: Swimming World Magazine
By Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, July 19. IN a matter of hours, the 15th edition of the FINA world aquatics championships will begin with an opening ceremony that will be nothing short of lavish at the Palau Sant Jordi. Ten years ago, on July 12, Barcelona began its first stint as host of the largest gathering of aquatic sports outside of the Olympics. Across the five sport disciplines, the fans and athletes witnessed some remarkable storylines, most of them coming in the Palau Sant Jordi from an 18-year-old Michael Phelps.

Just three years removed from his international competition debut at the 2000 Summer Olympics, Phelps was already a household name -- at least in swimming circles. He had broken numerous world records by the time he arrived in Barcelona in 2003, including breaking the 200 IM world record weeks earlier at the Santa Clara International Swim Meet while unshaved and hardly rested.

While many were impressed by Phelps' ability to break a world record during an in-season meet, others were hesitant to attach the word "great" to his name. Don Talbot, then the head coach of the Australian national team, said Phelps still needed to prove himself on the international stage before anyone could add labels to him.

As we know now, comments like that only spark Phelps' drive. "That put a lot of fire in my butt," Phelps was reported as saying in the September 2003 issue of Swimming World Magazine. "It got me more motivated than I already was." He went on to break four world records in Barcelona, including two in the 200 IM. Swimming World immediately proclaimed Phelps "the greatest swimmer in the world" and dubbed the meet as "Michael's World Championships." But the Baltimore Bullet wasn't the only major superstar of the meet.

A total of 13 world records fell at the Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona. The five that Phelps broke included two in the 200 IM (1:57.52 in semifinals, 1:56.04 in final), one in the 100 fly (51.47 in semifinals), one in the 200 fly (1:53.93 in semifinals) and one in the 400 IM (4:09.09 in the final). For good measure, he also added an American record in the 200 freestyle, his 1:46.60 leading off the Americans' 800 free relay setting the new standard.

Phelps didn't leave Barcelona as the only multiple record breaker. Japan's Kosuke Kitajima, who made his big international debut at the 2000 Olympics, broke the 100 and 200 breaststroke world records in Barcelona. He became the second man under the 1:00 barrier when he swam a 59.78 to beat American Brendan Hansen. It took a 2:09.42 for Kitajima to win the 200, maintaining his status as the only swimmer under 2:10 at that point.

And Ian Crocker was the only person to spoil Phelps' winning streak, stunning the crowd with a world record in the 100 butterfly final. That event saw three people lay claim to the world record in less than 24 hours. First, Ukrainian Andrii Serdinov posted a 51.76 in the first semifinal to break Michael Klim's record of 51.81. Two minutes later, Phelps snatched it away with a 51.47 in the second semifinal. The following day in the final, Crocker took the lead at 50 meters and held off Phelps' charge, winning with a 50.98 to Phelps' 51.10. Crocker would go on to help the United States win gold in the 400 medley relay.

It was the start of an illustrious career for Crocker as well, who would reset his global mark in the 100 fly at the 2005 world championships with an otherworldly 50.40. As a point of reference, that time still stands as the fastest swim ever in a textile suit.

Two other world records were set in the men's competition in Barcelona:

24.80 in the 50 backstroke by Germany's Thomas Rupprath, the second swim under 25 seconds in the event;

23.44 in the 50 butterfly by Australia's Matt Welsh, lowering countryman Geoff Huegill's world record by .01;

Amanda Beard and Leisel Jones broke world records on the women's side. Beard tied Qi Hui's world mark of 2:22.99 in the 200 breast in the final, continuing a rollercoaster career that began as a precocious 15-year-old at the 1996 Olympics. As for Jones, she set the world mark in the 100 breast semifinal with a 1:06.37, but nerves got the better of her in the final, and she finished third.

Michael Phelps' superhuman accomplishments overshadowed much of the rest of the swimming competition in Barcelona, and quite unfairly at that. Plenty of swimming stars were putting up fantastic times in the year before the Athens Games. Some of them, unfortunately, were not able to back up their world titles with Olympic gold medals.

Jenny Thompson was able to regain her 1998 world title in the 100 fly with 2000 Olympic champion and world record holder Inge de Bruijn sitting out the event. Thompson's 57.96 nearly broke her American record of 57.88. This would mark Thompson's final world championships appearance, and at the time, the 14 medals she accumulated across four world championships made her the most-decorated swimmer of the meet at the time.

Though de Bruijn wasn't in the 100 fly, she was dominant in the 50 free and 50 fly, winning both events as the only swimmer under 25 seconds in the 50 free and the only one under 26 seconds in the 50 fly.

Natalie Coughlin was primed for big things in Barcelona, but she was struck down by the flu and only made it in the 100 fly final. She did her duty in relays, helping the Americans win gold in the 400 free relay and swimming backstroke on the silver medal-winning medley relay. Coughlin was back to her winning ways in 2004, where she won the 100 backstroke as part of the five medals she won in Athens.

Besides de Bruijn in the 50 free and Beard in the 200 breast, only three other women would go on to win Olympic gold in their events the following year. Otylia Jedrzejcak of Poland won the 200 fly in 2003 and would take gold in Athens in 2004. Yana Klochkova would become the only person at the time to win the 200 IM and 400 IM at two successive Olympics, her 2003 world titles in the events offering exciting preludes to her accomplishments in 2004. And Luo Xuejuan won a surprise Olympic gold medal in the 100 breast in 2004, taking over presumed favorite Leisel Jones. As she did in the 2003 world championships, Luo overtook Jones in the final meters to claim gold.

It was a different story on the men's side, where every world championship individual event winner n 2003 won Olympic gold in 2004 -- with the exception of Alexander Popov. The Russian Rocket won gold in the 50 and 100 freestyles in Barcelona, but found himself out of the medals in 2004. (Gary Hall Jr. won the Olympic 50 free, while Pieter van den Hoogenband claimed gold in the 100 free in 2004.)

Germany's Hannah Stockbauer won three gold medals in Barcelona, taking the 400, 800 and 1500 freestyles. The accomplishments helped her gain recognition as the Female World Swimmer of the Year in 2003 by Swimming World Magazine, but in 2004, she was unable to earn a spot in the final of the 400 or 800 freestyles. She was able to help Germany, earning a bronze as part of the 800 free relay.

Though we are in a post-Olympic year this time around in Barcelona, we're bound to see some interesting storylines play out that, in 10 years' time, we are bound to look back and remember with amazement.

Total Access subscribers to Swimming World Magazine can download the September 2003 issue of the magazine at no extra cost to read our articles about the 2003 world championships, and can go into our website archives to read our daily recaps of the meet. Not a subscriber? Click here to subscribe. To purchase a one-time download of the September 2003 issue, click here.

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