By John Lohn
MELBOURNE, Australia, March 28. THE first two days here at the 12th edition of the FINA World Championships were solid, paced by quality performances. But, what's unfolded the last two nights has been downright unbelievable, thanks to seven world records. Expect more to come. Here's the latest World Champs Notebook.
**There will always be debate. That's the beauty of sports. No matter the time – tomorrow or a century from now – a unanimous opinion will be hard to come by in greatest-ever discussions. In this sport, someone will cling to the legendary status of Mark Spitz or the dominance of Ian Thorpe. But, Michael Phelps is making it really hard to turn in another direction when this one question is posed: Who is history's finest swimmer?
Phelps, still just a 21-year-old, has nothing left to prove in the pool. He's done it all. Yet, he continues to find a way to raise his star, to expand his portfolio of greatness. That much was proven when Phelps took down the world record in the 200 freestyle on Tuesday night. Heading into the final, the global standard stood at 1:44.06, the mark set by Thorpe at the 2001 World Championships. When the event was over, Phelps was the fastest in history, a 1:43.86 effort doing the trick.
Tonight, Phelps added the 18th individual world record of his career when he wiped out his own standard in the 200 butterfly, clocking 1:52.09, nearly two seconds clear of his previous record of 1:53.71. It was Phelps' third gold medal of the meet, raising his career total in World Champs action to a record 13, and it arrived in the event that put Phelps on the international map as a 15-year-old at the 2000 Olympic Trials.
Three-for-three, the prospect of Phelps leaving Melbourne for Sydney and the Duel in the Pool with eight medals of the gold variety is growing rapidly. Phelps still has both medley events and the 100 butterfly to negotiate, along with two more relays. Simultaneously, 16 months out from Beijing, the possibility of matching, or even surpassing, Spitz's seven gold medals from Munich is also picking up steam.
Like Spitz, Phelps has now established world records in five events during his career – the 200 free, both butterfly events and both medley disciplines. He's also a former American-record holder in the 400 free and, despite his non-sprinter tag, became the third-fastest American in the 100 freestyle here in Melbourne when he led off the U.S. 400 free relay in 48.42.
Forever, someone will pay homage to Spitz and his monumental effort at the 1972 Olympics: Seven world records in seven events. And, the way Thorpe dominated the 200 and 400 freestyles will certainly sway some, particularly in Australia, to cast a vote for the Thorpedo. But, is there really any doubt?
Phelps is the world's most dominant athlete in his sport, more overpowering than Roger Federer is to tennis and what Tiger Woods is to golf. That being said, how can he not be viewed as the greatest swimmer in history? The answer is simple: He can't.
**In only two years, the female version of the 200 freestyle has taken off. At the last World Championships, held in Montreal, that event might have been the weakest of the program. It took only 1:58.60 for France's Solenne Figues to capture the gold medal while Federica Pellegrini earned silver in 1:58.73. Those were the only efforts under 1:59.
This year, an athlete had to go under 1:59 simply to advance to the championship final. Rarely is a world record established in a semifinal, as advancement is far more important than time. So, when Pellegrini popped off a time of 1:56.47 in her semifinal, breaking the 1994 world mark of 1:56.64 by Franziska Van Almsick, a crowd already treated to a trifecta of world records was given a bit of dessert.
Then, in the final, the action got even better. France's Laure Manaudou took the record down even further, holding off Germany's Annika Lurz, 1:55.52 to 1:55.68. In two days, the world record has had a full second clipped away. An American record by Katie Hoff of 1:57.09 didn't even put the teenage star on the medal podium.
**Somewhat lost in the world-record spree of Michael Phelps (200 free), Aaron Peirsol (100 backstroke) and Natalie Coughin (100 backstroke) was Kate Ziegler's defense of her title in the 1,500 freestyle Tuesday night. The 18-year-old attacked the metric mile with guts and heart to produce the second-fastest time in history, an effort of 15:53.05. Only Janet Evans has gone faster, as her 1988 mark of 15:52.10 is the oldest on the books.
Ziegler was ahead of world-record pace beyond the midpoint of her race and continued to dig down the stretch to hold off the charging Flavia Rigamonti of Switzerland. The Swiss Miss won silver in 15:55.38, fifth-fastest ever. Although Ziegler missed Evans' record, it's just a matter of time before she moves to the No. 1 spot. More, Ziegler could make a run at Evans' 800 free record later this week. That standard has stood at 8:16.22 since 1989.
**The much-anticipated women's 100 freestyles begins tomorrow with the preliminary and semifinal rounds. For months, the event has been viewed as the most intriguing on the female side, a clash with major starpower. The headliners in the discipline are Aussies Libby Lenton and Jodie Henry, Germany's Britta Steffen, the world-record holder, and the American duo of Natalie Coughlin and Amanda Weir.
Steffen had the fastest split in history earlier in the week while racing the 400 freestyle relay. Meanwhile, Lenton led off for the Aussies in the 400 free relay in 53.42, tied for second-fastest ever, and also won the 100 butterfly. As for Coughlin, she's rolling from a world-record swim in the 100 backstroke (59.44) and an American record in the 100 fly (57.34).
**After a three-day hiatus, relay action starts again tomorrow with the heats and final of the women's 800 free relay. Germany is the world-record holder off of its 7:50.82 performance at last summer's European Championships in Budapest. The United States is the three-time defending champion and Australia is hoping to mount a charge for gold.