There are only a few people in the world who could win a world championship gold medal and be only a little bit satisfied, and Michael Phelps is one of them.
The fact that Phelps came from behind to win the gold in the 200-meter individual medley Thursday night at the swimming world championships at Jean-Drapeau Park did nothing to assuage the disappointment of his seventh-place finish earlier that night in the 100 free and the annoyance of a meet that, by his standards, isn't going all that well.
The 100 is not one of his specialties, but Phelps, who won eight medals at last year's Summer Games, has grown accustomed to excelling at anything he does in chlorinated water. Two events he added to his repertoire for these championships -- substituting them for those in which he holds world records -- earned him no medals and rather notable struggles.
Meantime, he hasn't even flourished in his fortes here, providing him with maddening lessons in humility that he vows will be funneled into a more serious commitment to training under his longtime coach Bob Bowman once this meet concludes Sunday.
"I really haven't progressed too much since '03," Phelps, 20, said. "My freestyle has been getting a little bit better, but I think this year has been a difficult year for me. A lot of different things happened that I wasn't used to . . . there have been a few things I've had to adjust to. [Bowman] has clearly stated he's dropping the bomb on me . . . I'm sure he's going to put the hurt on me.
"Hopefully I will change a few things in the upcoming year and improve upon those things."
Phelps, a native of Baltimore, has won two individual golds and one relay gold here, but he does not look like a happy man. He could add three more medals (one in the 100 fly, two in relays) by the end of this meet, a spectacular haul by anyone's standards but his own. That would be two fewer than the six gold and two bronze he won at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. It would match the six in six events he won at the 2003 world championships in Barcelona, but there he set five individual world records. Here, he has none.
"Two-thousand-and-three, that's the best shape I've ever been in my entire life, no question about that," Phelps said. "And last summer was last summer, something I've always dreamt of, and to be able to come through, this doesn't even compare to those meets, those years. This is more of a stepping stone than anything."
Phelps, who competes in the 100 butterfly Friday, finished in 48.99 seconds in the 100 free early Thursday night, then won the 200 medley in 1 minute 56.68 seconds, chasing down Hungary's Laszlo Cseh (1:57.61).
Neither of those times represented personal bests, a fact that irked Phelps far more than his seventh in the stacked 100 won by Italy's Filippo Magnini in a championship-record 48.12. South Africans Roland Schoeman (48.28) and Ryk Neethling (48.34) claimed the other medals.
Bowman said Phelps simply lacks the pure speed over the first 50 meters to keep up with the world's best sprinters, but he wanted to see how Phelps handled the unfamiliar events. They thus subbed the 100 and 400 free for the 200 fly and 400 individual medley.
"He's not fast enough yet to go out with them," Bowman said. "By the time he turns to go back, he's right in their wake . . . so it's hard to come back."
Though Phelps could have attributed his difficulties here to what was viewed as a curious decision to dabble (he failed to make the final in the 400 free Sunday), he seemed determine to dump all of the blame on his own head, and as thoroughly as if dousing himself with a bucket of water. His news conference felt a bit like a therapy session, with Phelps admitting he had put swimming on the back burner at times after his glorious Olympic experience, using words such as "downer" and "mistakes" and "disappointment."
Indeed, he enrolled in classes at the University of Michigan, where Bowman had accepted a job after the Olympics, traveled, immersed himself in various promotional events and even had an embarrassing run-in with the law, getting cited for driving under the influence in Salisbury, Md., last fall.
"Let's say I had 1000 decisions and 999 of them I made correctly for the previous five years," Phelps said. "Over the last year, it was probably 600. There were more decisions that I made not-for-swimming reasons, not to improve my swimming. . . . I think that's the reason I am where I am in the swimming world. I have to get back to where I was, putting the grind in, putting in the yardage, letting Bob do what he does best."