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Column by John Lohn, Swimming World senior writer
SHANGHAI, China, July 27. BACKED into a corner, looking vulnerable, has never been a familiar position for Michael Phelps. He's always been the gladiator, sword and shield in hand, ready for the kill. Of course, there is a first for everything – so the cliché goes – and Phelps has shown some weakness of late. He's the first to admit why.
We all know Phelps is not in peak form. He's not in the shape he showed in 2007, when he left the World Championships in Melbourne with seven gold medals. He's not the guy who mesmerized the sporting world in 2008 with that awe-inspiring octet of Olympic gold medals. And Phelps knows why: A lack of training.
Despite producing a strong showing in the 200 freestyle on the third night of the World Championships here in Shanghai, Phelps was forced to accept the silver medal as he was beaten my friend and rival Ryan Lochte. That performance came on the heels of a bronze medal for Phelps as a member of the 400 freestyle relay. How often in his career has Phelps entered a third event without a gold medal?
So, when Phelps stepped on the blocks for his pet event at the Oriental Sports Center's Indoor Stadium, the timing could not have been any better. Phelps needed a victory to regain some momentum, and what better than to collect it in the event that started his spectacular career: The 200 butterfly. For the fifth time in his career, Phelps is the world champion in that event.
It was written here yesterday that Lochte has supplanted Phelps as the best swimmer in the world – present day. That opinion hasn't changed. But there needs to be an appreciation for what Phelps is capable of doing when he's not at his best – whether or not he is the one responsible for the lower fitness level. Think about it. Phelps defeated a stellar field in the 200 fly in his less than perfect form. That speaks to his greatness.
Dueling with Japan's Takeshi Matsuda, who entered the competition with the fastest time in the world this year, Phelps looked like he might suffer a second straight individual loss. At the 150-meter mark, he trailed Matsuda, the Japanese standout having turned in a strong third leg. But as Phelps has done so often, he stormed down the last lap to claim gold. This time, he had to dig just a little deeper. Then again, that's what legends do.
"The race felt good," Phelps said. "I wanted to do what I usually do when I'm in better shape. I wanted to step on it from the get-go. I saw the other swimmers at the 150 and I put my hips into it. I know there's a lot more I can do in that race."
Barring a stunning turn of events, Phelps will walk out of here with seven medals, bringing his career count at the World Champs to an absurd total of 33. More important, Phelps will leave China with a significant amount of motivation entering the final stretch toward London and the 2012 Olympics, which he's stated will be his final Olympiad. There is no questioning Phelps will want to exit his career at the top, where he's resided for the majority of his career – really until Lochte emerged between last summer and at this meet.
Phelps will get another shot at Lochte, tomorrow in the final of the 200 individual medley. Each qualified for the championship final with ease, and if Phelps can find a way to defeat Lochte, he'll swing the pendulum back in his favor in terms of being the world's best. If Lochte prevails, which is expected, Phelps will shift his attention to London and putting together that grand farewell.
For now, his triumph in the 200 fly was a step in the right direction and proof that Phelps, no matter how off his typically high level he might be, is special.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn