MELBOURNE, Australia - A pair of frontiers intersected in front of Michael Phelps last night. A trailblazer in one, he must ponder exactly how deep into the other he wants to venture.
Phelps remained the dominant man at this FINA World Cup stop, falling less than a half-second shy of establishing world short-course records in the 200-meter backstroke and the 200 individual medley. The close calls mixed frustration and intrigue into his visit.
"He was very disappointed with the 200 IM, but that's all part of the plan," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. "I could have had him not do the backstroke. He would have been a little fresher for the IM and maybe crushed the record, but he needs to do that double, to simulate what he's up against next summer."
The top qualifier in the 100 butterfly and 400 IM, Phelps went after a third double in as many days today - and two more first-place checks of $1,500 Australian - at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Center. The schedule is designed to replicate the stress he longs to be under at the 2004 Olympics in Greece.
His performance in the 200 backstroke did nothing to quiet the speculation that he could include that in his Olympic program, and attempt to become the first athlete to win five individual gold medals in a single games.
Matt Welsh, one of the few Australian male stars not complaining of illness or jetlag, overcame Phelps at the 150 mark, but the 18-year-old from Rodgers Forge adroitly handled the final wall and came home in 1 minute, 51.40 seconds. The world records in the event are held by fellow American Aaron Peirsol, whose 2-year-old short-course mark is 1:51.17.
When the pool deck interviewer suggested that it was unfair that Phelps branch out to so many events, she was either unaware of his accomplishments there or just being coy. Peirsol is the world champion, but Phelps won the 200 backstroke at the spring and summer nationals, a footnote last summer when he established world long-course (50-meter pool) records in the 200 and 400 IMs, and the 100 and 200 butterflys.
"He's synonymous with the IM and the butterfly," Welsh said, "so they forget how good he is in the backstroke.
Welsh was asked whether he thinks Phelps will go in the 200 back next year.
"If I have really bad dreams, yeah," Welsh said. "He's an incredible competitor, one of those that you hope isn't in your race. He's that fit, he's that flexible, he can do anything. It's one thing to be dominant in one event. He does it in multiple events, time and time again. He's one of a kind."
Phelps put his stamp on the 200 IM last summer, when he lowered the long-course mark three times. Finland's Jani Sievenen set the short-course world record, 1:54.65, in 1994.
Last night, Phelps maintained a predictable pattern. He was more than a second ahead of Sievenen's pace through the butterfly and backstroke, lost considerable ground in the breaststroke, but hammered the freestyle to touch in 1:54.85.
In an adjoining lane, training partner Kevin Clements took second in 1:56.71. Phelps shook his head and talked animatedly, gesturing with two fingers. He had lowered the American and World Cup circuit records, but for the second time in an hour, he had fallen just shy of his initial world record on a short course.
"I'm frustrated right now, a little bit, to be off two records by two-tenths," Phelps said. "The first one [backstroke] shocked me a little bit. On the IM, I had to give it everything I had. I'm still a little blown away by that, but falling short gives me something to work for."