Michael Phelps gave a whole new meaning to the phrase "return with a vengeance" at the FINA World Championships today in Rome.
The hero of USA Swimming set a world record in the 200-meter butterfly with a time of 1:51:51 -- more than half a second off his previous best of 1:52:03. And this just a day after his shocking loss to Germany's Paul Biedermann in the 200-meter freestyle. Tuesday was the first time Phelps had been defeated in an individual race at the Olympics or world championships since 2005.
As he did so often at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Phelps turned around after his win and held up his right index finger to the crowd as he broke yet another of Mark Spitz's milestones with a 34th world record.
"I tried to hang on in the last 50 meters and I was able to. I wanted to step on it real hard in the first 100," Phelps told reporters. The 200-meter butterfly is considered to be one of Phelps' best events.
Tuesday's post-competition discussion focused mainly on the high-tech swimsuits that have recently been banned by FINA, the international governing body of swimming. Critics of the suit were muted today by Phelps' race, which he won with ease in long pants and not the high-tech bodysuit.
"I can tell you this, he swam that 200 meters pissed off. He was out in 24.7 [seconds] ... That is ridiculous," an anonymous source who's worked closely with Phelps told ABC News, refering to Phelps' time for the first 50 meters of the race.
"He never swims like that. He was out of control from the start," the source added.
Secret's in the Suit?
Spectators and swim fans were stunned to see Phelps, the water wunderkind who crushed the competition to win eight gold medals in Beijing, finish a silvery second Tuesday.
Biedermann, a relative unknown who took fifth place in Beijing, won the 200 and 400-meter freestyle events, and smashed Phelps' 200-meter freestyle world record by .96 of a second.
Biedermann raced in the Arena X-Glide, a new model of polyurethane suit that promotes buoyancy along with a frictionless glide through the water. Phelps raced in his Speedo LZR Racer, the suit that revolutionized competitive swimming and helped shatter the world records in Beijing. Now it's the Arena that's leaving the Speedo in its wake.
So, is it the suit or the swimmer that wins the medals?
The Arena X-Glide helps swimmers float, so all their energy is used to move them forward, not just stay up in the water. The X-Glide also traps more air and is considered faster than the Speedo LZR Racer, the suit Phelps wears from the brand that sponsors him.
Biedermann estimated the X-Glide shaved a full two seconds off his race time.
Phelps, while accepting his loss to Bierdermann graciously, told The New York Times that the high-tech gear has changed the entire sport. "Now it's not swimming. The headlines are always who's wearing what suit."
And this is not just a tempest in a swimming pool. FINA held a news conference hours after Biedermann's victory to announce that these souped-up swimsuits will be banned in 2010.
Bob Bowman, Phelps' personal coach, threatened to keep his superstar out of international swimming meets until FINA instituted its ban on the polyurethane swimsuits.
Bowman told the Times that the ban cannot come soon enough.
"This mess needs to be stopped right now...We've lost all the history of the sport," he said.
Even Biedermann, the new world champion, seemed anxious to shed the suits and have swimmers compete on their own merits.
"The suits make a difference," he told The Associated Press. "I hope there will be a time when I can beat Michael Phelps without these suits. I hope next year. I hope it's really soon."
Despite his loss, Phelps seemed optimistic.
"Hopefully," Phelps told the AP, "next summer we'll be able to really go head-to-head and I'll be in jammers."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.