ROME — Michael Phelps has four more chances to win gold at the world swimming championships.
He's not likely to be satisfied until he gets another shot at Paul Biedermann.
In different suits, that is.
The unheralded German glided across the water, steadily pulling away from the winningest Olympian ever, and handed Phelps a stunning loss in the 200-meter freestyle Tuesday – his first defeat in a major individual race since 2005.
No sooner had they climbed from the water, the debate was on.
Was it the man? Or was it the suit?
Biedermann acknowledged that he had an edge in his Arena X-Glide, a polyurethane suit that has surpassed the Speedo LZR Racer worn by Phelps. All those suits are on the way out, to be banned by the sport's governing body starting in 2010. But for now, it's perfectly legal.
Biedermann is the world champion.
"The suits make a difference," he said. "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."
Phelps can't wait.
"It's going to be fun next year," he said, "when swimming is back to swimming."
But there's still work to do at these unlike-any-other championships, where 15 world records fell through the first three days of an eight-day meet – matching the total from the last worlds and closing in on the 25 marks set at the Beijing Olympics.
Phelps will swim Wednesday evening in the final of the 200 butterfly. He's also got the 100 fly and a couple of relays left, all of which look like solid chances for gold. But he's always stewed more over the rare losses than savored the frequent wins.
"Theoretically, that was a pretty good swim for me, three-tenths off my best time after taking six months off," said Phelps, referring to his layoff after winning a record eight gold medals at the Olympics. "I mean, I'm not happy, but I mean I know I didn't train much this year. For right now, I'll take it.
"But I'm not pleased."
Neither is coach Bob Bowman, but not with anything his swimmer did. He went off on FINA for allowing swimsuit technology to get out of hand – a race for speed that, interestingly enough, actually started in February 2008 when Speedo introduced the LZR, the very suit Phelps is paid a great deal of money to endorse.
The very suit that now looks like a slowpoke alongside fully rubberized suits such as the X-Glide and Jaked.
At the risk of sounding hypocritical, Bowman ranted that he may just pull Phelps from any more international meets until FINA follows through on banning these suits. As it stands, the governing body is pointing toward having new rules in place by May 2010, when male swimmers will only be able to wear waist-to-knee suits (known as jammers) made from textile fabrics.
"We've lost all the history of the sport. Does a 10-year-old boy in Baltimore want to break Paul Biedermann's record?" Bowman said. "The sport is in shambles right now and they better do something or they're going to lose their guy who fills these suits."
In the space of three days, the 22-year-old Biedermann wiped Ian Thorpe's name out of the record book in the 400 free, then he took down Phelps with a time of 1 minute, 42.00 seconds, also snatching away the world record that had stood since the American won gold at Beijing in 1:42.96.
"Biedermann just took off," said Phelps, who was a full body-length behind at the end. "He took it to a new level in that race."
Bowman said he knows why.
"The (polyurethane) suits make you go out with ... much less energy cost, so at the end you have a punch," the coach said. "Michael had to work so hard to stay with him for 150, then it's just not there at the end. That's what the suits do. The energy cost is reduced going out, so you finish a lot better."
Phelps sure looked out of place on the medal podium.
After bending over to accept a medal he wanted no part of, then listening to another swimmer's national anthem, Phelps tried to make his getaway. Not so fast – there were still pictures to take.
So he straggled back to the top step of the stand, the spot he knows so well. This time, it was already occupied. Phelps stood off to the side with bronze medalist Danila Izotoc of Russia. Biedermann was at the center and the center of attention, the photographers snapping away.
When the three of them headed off around the pool deck together, the winner danced for the German fans, while Phelps managed a few weak smiles.
Finally, Phelps climbed toward the stands to drop off a stuffed mascot with his mother, Debbie, who leaned over to give him a consoling hug. Before her son even left the pool deck, he pulled off his silver medal, as if he wanted no part of a consolation prize.
Biedermann's upset launched another night of record breaking.
Britain's Gemma Spofforth went the fastest ever to win the 100 backstroke; Italy's Federica Pellegrini fired up the home crowd with her second world record of the championships in a semifinal heat of the 200 free; and South Africa's Cameron van der Burgh posted his own mark in the semis of the 50 breaststroke, a non-Olympic event.
In other races, American Rebecca Soni won the 100 breaststroke, Japan's Junya Koga captured the world title in the 100 back, and Italy's Alessia Filippi won the 1,500 free, another event that's not on the Olympic program.
Phelps, meanwhile, is looking toward another shot at Biedermann.
"Hopefully," Phelps said, "next summer we'll be able to really go head-to-head and I'll be in jammers."