BARCELONA, SPAIN — BARCELONA, Spain - That might have been more than just another world record that Michael Phelps tossed into the 10th FINA World Championships.
It seemed like a warning.
The 18-year-old from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club came to the Mediterranean with grand plans, to become the first person to win four individual events in swimming's premier event outside the Olympics.
He displayed his fitness and mind frame at the Palau Sant Jordi last night, where spectators uninterested in a seemingly meaningless 200-meter butterfly semifinal left early and missed a world record he achieved with shocking ease.
Two years are an eternity in the life of a teen, and an itchy Phelps ended a long wait to post a personal best in the event that put him on the international map.
He obliterated his standard with an effort of 1 minute, 53.93 seconds, the only world record by an American through the meet's first three days, although brother and sister Aaron and Hayley Peirsol made history with a gold and silver, respectively.
"It didn't feel as hard as the other ones," said Phelps, who recorded his eighth world-record swim. "I'm not going to say it felt easy, but I definitely felt good out there. I hadn't had a best time in that event in two years.
Phelps began a haul in which he'll race 13 times in six days. He'll have four finals next weekend alone. He'll help the United States try to medal in the 800 freestyle relay tonight, just five races after the 200 fly final.
Any suggestion that last night's effort was an indication that he might hold something back for the relay is off base.
"He swam very well, under control," said Bob Bowman, his coach. "I do think there's another level he can go to if he's in the right mode and things are going well."
Things are going just dandy for Phelps, your standard Towson High grad who turned professional at age 16 and will take a few courses at Loyola College in the fall to spice up the routine that has primed him to be certified as the best swimmer in the world this week and into the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
As Ian Thorpe, the Australian star, beat Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands and repeated in the 200 freestyle, but was asked about his inability to improve on his 2001 times, international observers finally began to grasp the possibility that Phelps' upside appears larger. The two will finally meet Friday, in the 200 individual medley.
A dig by Don Talbot, a veteran Australian coach who earlier this month said Phelps hadn't really accomplished anything internationally, added to his incentive.
"That put a lot of fire under my butt," Phelps said. "That made me more motivated than I already was. Having that in mind is hopefully going to get me through these championships."
The 200 butterfly, the event that sent Phelps to the 2000 Olympics, had taken a back seat in his drive to become the best all-around swimmer ever.
Two years ago, when, at 15 years, 9 months he became the youngest male ever to set a world record in a stopwatch sport, Phelps broke the 1:55 barrier. He lowered the mark to 1:54.58 in the 2001 worlds, but the event became an afterthought during his 2002 training, when he began to take over the 200 and 400 individual medleys, where he's also the world record-holder.
The first male under 1:55 in the 200 fly, last night Phelps showed the way under 1:54, an effort that gained momentum in the first round. His final 50 meters in the preliminary, what he called "the best morning swim I've ever had," was faster than the middle two.
In the semifinals, he improved his opening 50 by nearly a second, and even though the world record seemed clinched at the 150 wall, there was still some intimidating work to come.
"I just wish I could have had a better seat to watch it," said fellow American Tom Malchow, the reigning Olympic champion, who was nearly two seconds behind. "I'm happy with my swim, but I literally got my doors blown off in the last 50.
"Right now, there's absolutely no ceiling to what he can do. He's young, he's motivated and swimming with a lot of confidence. It should be an exciting four or five days coming up."
Michael Phelps of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club had another world-record performance yesterday at the world championships in Barcelona, Spain. He lowered his mark in the 200-meter butterfly to 1 minute, 53.93 seconds.
Event Time Date
200 butterfly 1:54.92 3/30/01
200 butterfly 1:54.58 7/24/01
400 IM 4:11.09 8/15/02
400 med. relay* 3:33.48 8/29/02
400 IM 4:10.73 4/6/03
200 IM 1:57.84 6/29/03
200 butterfly 1:53.93 7/22/03
*Phelps' split of 51.13 was the fastest in history.
Michael Phelps' remaining schedule at this week's swimming world championships:
Today 200 butterfly final, 800 freestyle relay
Tomorrow 200 individual medley preliminaries and semifinals
Friday 100 butterfly preliminaries and semifinals, 200 IM final
Saturday 100 butterfly final
Sunday 400 IM semifinals and final, 400 medley relay