At Worlds, 'It's Not About the Swimmer'

Michael Phelps finished a distant second in the 200-meter freestyle to Paul Biedermann, a previously unheralded German who set a world record.
Michael Phelps finished a distant second in the 200-meter freestyle to Paul Biedermann, a previously unheralded German who set a world record. (Photos By Alessandra Tarantino -- Associated Press)
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By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

ROME, July 28 -- A German swimmer known more for his swimsuit than his credentials did far more than win a race Tuesday night at the swimming world championships. Paul Biedermann crushed Michael Phelps in the 200-meter freestyle final, making Phelps look like a tired man in the homestretch; he obliterated Phelps's world record in the event; and he inadvertently set Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, ranting against the sport's governing body, FINA.

But perhaps more than anything, with his victory in 1 minute 42 seconds -- 0.89 under Phelps's world record and 1.22 faster than Phelps, who finished in second place -- Biedermann offered evidence that the high-tech speedsuits haven't really done anyone, least of all Biedermann, any favors.

"I am a little bit angry," Biedermann said after being assaulted with questions about his speedsuit. "I'm also a little bit sad. It's all about the suits. It's not about the swimmer."

Indeed, little that has happened at these championships, in which 15 world records have been broken in three days, has been about the swimmer, and Biedermann has become the unwitting and unfortunate lightning rod for the issue by upsetting the sport's two biggest icons -- and then frankly admitting that his performances have been aided by his new Arena X-Glide suit.

On Sunday, he broke Australian legend Ian Thorpe's seven-year-old record in the 400 freestyle by 0.01 of a second, then speculated that his suit made him two seconds faster. Tuesday, it was Phelps, the 14-time Olympic gold medal winner, whom he dominated. Phelps claimed the silver in 1:43.22.

"When he pulled away, I kind of got left behind pretty quick," Phelps said.

The high-tech speedsuits have been factors in more than 140 world records in the last 18 months. "Yes, [the suit] makes me faster, of course," Biedermann said. "FINA allowed it. It's not my problem . . . It's a problem of FINA, and they should handle it fast."

Phelps, who claimed a gold medal in the 4x100 free relay Sunday, analyzed his day without anger,resentment or visible frustration, saying he was not in the shape he was last summer because he had taken six months off after the Olympics. "I probably didn't prepare myself the best way I should have," he said.

Bowman, his coach, could not even feign serenity.

Bowman's ire had already been raised hours earlier, when FINA announced it was pushing back its deadline by five months, until next April or May, for implementing a ban on non-textile, full-length suits. The resounding defeat of Phelps by a swimmer who got a 1.5-second boost from his suit, according to Bowman, did nothing to calm him.

"They can probably expect Michael not to swim until [the rule changes are] implemented," Bowman said. "I'm done with this. This has to be implemented immediately. The sport is in shambles right now, and they're going to lose the guy that fills these seats.

"They've lost the history of the sport," Bowman said. "Does a 10-year-old boy in Baltimore want to break Paul Biedermann's record?"

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