ROME – Michael Phelps had another swimsuit issue. It didn't slow him down this time. Phelps bounced back from a stunning loss with something more familiar — a world record in the 200-meter butterfly Wednesday. For good measure, he surpassed another of Mark Spitz's accomplishments with the 34th world record of his career, one more than Spitz had during his brilliant run in the pool.
One night after he was soundly beaten by Germany's Paul Biedermann, Phelps sliced the time in what he calls his "bread and butter" to 1 minute, 51.51 seconds, more than a half-second lower than his gold medal-winning time of 1:52.03 at the Beijing Olympics.
With all the hullabaloo over swimsuits, everyone wondered about Phelps' decision to wear one that stretched only from his waist to his ankles, leaving his upper body bare. Was he trying to make a fashion statement?
"No, that didn't even cross my mind," Phelps said. "It was just me being comfortable."
Actually, he had planned to wear a Speedo bodysuit, only to discover during warmups the one he brought to the Foro Italico was too tight in the shoulders. So he went back to the legsuit, which he prefers in the fly anyway.
"He actually warmed up with the full body and he just said it felt too tight and he took it off," Phelps' coach Bob Bowman said. "Then I noticed he hadn't shaved his chest, but I'm like, 'Don't worry about it. I don't think you have much hair.'"
Phelps went out much faster than he normally does in the fly, and paid for it on the final push to the wall. His arms were burning. His legs, too. But there was no way he was losing again.
He surged to the wall a body length ahead of silver medalist Pawel Korzeniokski of Poland, with Japan's Takeshi Matsuda settling for bronze. Phelps whipped around quickly to see his time and held up his right index finger when the "WR" was posted.
"I wanted to step on it in the first 100 to get out there in the clean water, and that's pretty much what happened," Phelps said. "It was a lot more pain last night than tonight."
On Tuesday, he was blown out of the water by Germany's Paul Biedermann, who routed Phelps in the 200 freestyle and also snatched away his world record.
Most of the talk afterward was about what they were wearing — and there wasn't a red carpet in sight. Biedermann was in a polyurethane Arena X-Glide suit, which everyone concedes produces much faster times than Phelps' year-old Speedo LZR Racer.
Bowman threatened to pull his star from all future international events unless FINA speeds up its timetable for banning bodysuits. The governing body had mandated that male swimmers go back to wearing waist-to-knee "jammers" made from textile materials, but says the new rules may not be fully implemented until May 2010.
Phelps will let others debate those issues, though he's never real happy about losing. Friends stepped up to help him cope with his first major individual loss since 2005, sending along texts to the effect: "If you want to call me and just yell at the phone and get some frustration out, I have no problem sitting there and listening."
He took them up on the offer.
"I was having some texting battles with a couple of buddies from home, and it was cool just being able to let some emotions out and have somebody listen to it," Phelps said. "I think that definitely helped."
It also helped to swim the 200 fly. That event produced Phelps' first trip to the Olympics in 2000 (he finished fifth at Sydney as a 15-year-old). That event produced the first of all those world records in 2001.
"I've always done well in it," he said. "I guess you can call it my bread and butter event."
There couldn't have been a more appropriate place for Phelps to add another record to his resume. Shortly after he climbed from the pool, Italy's Federica Pellegrini sent the home crowd into a frenzy when she set the 20th world mark of the four-day-old meet in the 200 freestyle.
With no disrespect to Phelps, Biedermann and Pellegrini have been the stars of these worlds. Biedermann dispatched Ian Thorpe from the record book in the 400 free before knocking off Phelps. Pellegrini thrilled the home folks with her second win and third world record.
"I feel that my heart is for Italy," she said after clapping along with the crowd during her country's bouncy national anthem, "Fratelli d'Italia" (Brothers of Italy).
Before this night was done, South Africa's Cameron van der Burgh broke the mark he set in the semifinals to win the 50 breaststroke, and China's Zhang Lin took down Grant Hackett's four-year-old record in the 800 free by more than six seconds (7:32.12), with Tunisia's Ous Mellouli also going under the old mark but only getting silver. Both are non-Olympic events.
Earlier, Germany's Daniela Samulski and Russia's Anastasia Zueva got things rolling by setting records in consecutive semifinal heats of the 50 backstroke, another event not on the Olympic program. And let's not forget American Mary Descenza, who took more than three seconds off her personal best to swim the fastest women's 200 butterfly ever — in the morning preliminaries, no less.
For those who've lost count, that's 22 records in Rome, hardly living up to the label as the Eternal City. Nothing is sacred in these suits, which have already helped surpass the 15 records set at the last worlds in Melbourne two years ago, with four days still to go.
Phelps had been eager to get another shot at the 200 fly on the big stage, even after winning gold in China. During the Olympic race, his goggles filled with water and he actually had to count his strokes in his head because he couldn't really see where he was. He was disgusted afterward.
"That's something I really wanted to do last year, break the 1:52 barrier," he said. "Coming into it tonight I said, 'Whatever happens, happens.' I tried to give it my all the first 150."
Was redemption on his mind as well?
"Not really," Phelps insisted. "I've always been able to put races behind me, having to do so many events. You can't get caught up with one event."
That said, Phelps couldn't wait to get on the podium to collect his first individual title of the meet, which he spurred on to enter by his mother, Debbie. While his name was being announced in English and Italian, he stood impatiently with his right foot already on the stand.
Finally, Phelps hopped up to the highest rung, thrust both arms in the air with a defiant look that melted into a crooked smile. Then he plunged into the stands to hug his mom, just as he the night before.
No consoling this time. Only a celebration.
"My mom did want to come to Rome," Phelps said. "After the Olympics, I said I would just send her over there and she could have a nice vacation. But she said, 'No, I want to come over there and see you swim.' So I got back in the pool, lost some weight and got back in shape."
And back on top.