ROME — Michael Phelps had an off night. His new windmill stroke just slowed him down. He left his teammates with some catching-up to do. Heck, he didn't even get a world record when about all you had to do was squeeze into one of those newfangled suits and dive in at the Foro Italico.
Yet, when it was done, Phelps found himself in that same ol' place – top of the medal stand.
At his first major meet since a historic Olympics, Phelps got off to a winning start at the world championships as part of the 400-meter freestyle relay Sunday. He was actually the slowest member of the team, but the guys picked him up and beat the French again, just as they did in that memorable race last summer in Beijing.
"The best thing about this relay was they carried Michael," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach and also in charge of the U.S. men's team. "We need the other people to step up."
They sure did – especially Nathan Adrian on the anchor leg. His blistering down and back was reminiscent of Jason Lezak's amazing swim at the Olympics, when he somehow chased down Alain Bernard, touched first by eight-hundredths of a second and kept Phelps on course to win a record eight golds.
"Relays are raced as a team," Phelps said, "and I think all four guys swam a great race."
Phelps was third when he passed off to Ryan Lochte, who hung tough against the hulking Bernard while surprising Russia surged into contention. Matt Grevers did his part on the third leg, and Adrian finished it off with fastest split of anyone to touch in 3 minutes, 9.21 seconds.
Phelps pumped his fists on the pool deck, then leaned over to congratulate Adrian. Call him Lezak Jr.
"Coming in to this relay, to be honest, I felt like a child among men," said Adrian, whose 100 was timed in 46.79 – nearly a full second faster than Phelps' 47.78 opener. "All of these guys have made a great name for themselves, they've won individual medals at the Olympics, and they threw me on the last leg, so I had a little bit of pressure on myself."
The French were the ones who cracked. The Russians touched second in 3:09.52, while France – which sent out four of the world's fastest sprinters, at least on paper – were relegated to the bronze at 3:09.89.
"They've got the relay in their blood," French coach Lionel Horter said. "Even when they have a little problem, like for example, Phelps didn't swim really well tonight, they still swam better than us."
Amazingly on this warm summer evening, the Americans managed to keep their relay title without setting a world record. A half-dozen marks were set on the first night of swimming – two of them in semifinal heats, two more in one race, a staggering figure that shows just about every record is in danger over this eight-day meet.
Looks like those high-tech bodysuits are going to have quite a going-out party. The sport's governing body banned such attire beginning in 2010, believing they've crossed the line by increasing buoyancy and improving stamina, allowing swimmers to literally glide along the top of the water.
"Even if it was me breaking a world record, I wouldn't be jumping for joy," said American Dara Torres, still competing at 42. "Because you know it's the suit."
Among the records going down: an iconic mark in the men's 400 freestyle held for seven years by Australian great Ian Thorpe. Germany's Paul Biedermann shot down the "Thorpedo" with a time of 3:40.07, breaking his long-standing mark by a hundredth of a second.
"I hope that we don't forget Ian Thorpe now that he's not on the record board," Bowman said. "I thought it was the best record. Now it's gone."
In perhaps the greatest evidence of the suit's impact, Biedermann beat his qualifying time from a month ago by a staggering 6 1/2 seconds, wearing an Arena X-Glide, one of the polyurethane suits that surpassed Speedo's LZR Racer but will soon join it on the scrap heap.
"I expected someone to break the world record. I didn't expect it to be me," Biedermann said. "This suit makes me really fast. Honestly, I think it (cuts off) two seconds in the 400."
An even older world record by Inge de Bruijn, which had stood the test of time since the 2000 Sydney Olympics, also went down. Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom got that one in the semifinals of the 100 butterfly, her time of 56.44 erasing the mark of 56.61.
The Italian fans had plenty to cheer about when Federico Pellegrini became the first woman to break the 4-minute barrier in the 400 free. She patted her heart and waved to the near-sellout crowd as she walked off the deck with a time of 3:59.15, breaking her own month-old record.
"Usually, once swimmers dive in the water you don't hear the crowd cheering," Pellegrini said. "But this time it was completely different. I could hear the crowd cheering."
American Ariana Kukors, who didn't even qualify for the 200 individual medley at the U.S. trials but got in when a teammate scratched, now holds the fastest time ever in that event.
She, too, did it in a semifinal heat – wearing another of the new-age suits, the Jaked, when she went 2:07.03 to easily beat Stephanie Rice's record of 2:08.53 that won gold in Beijing.
The record book was so worthless that two marks fell in a single race. Germany's Britta Steffen was credited with a world record of 52.22 in the 100 free for her opening leg of the 400 free relay, but the Netherlands came back to win the race – with a record-breaking time, of course: 3:31.72.
In fact, runner-up Germany and third-place Australia also broke the previous mark of 3:33.62.
Torres swam the relay for the Americans, but she was already more than 2 seconds behind by the time she dove in the water on the second leg. The U.S. wound up a distant fourth.
"That hurt," said Torres, who has focused on the 50 free. "I hadn't been training for the 100. My start was not very strong and my turns were not very strong."
By the end of the night, there was a familiar sight: Phelps climbing to the top of the stand, leaning over and having a gold medal draped around his neck.
He's endured quite a journey since his great haul of China – hosting "Saturday Night Live," appearing on countless television shows and raising the profile of a sport that had been a once-every-four-year phenomenon.
That was all part of his plan. What he didn't count on was having his picture snapped as he inhaled from a marijuana pipe, and having that photo show up in a British tabloid. He received a three-month suspension from USA Swimming and didn't get back into competition until May.
Through it all, Phelps recaptured the motivation that took him to unprecedented heights, coming back to set another world record at the U.S. nationals this month. And he's off to a winning start at Rome, where he'll be competing in six events.
But that's it for his new straight-arm stroke. Phelps never looked real comfortable trying to do it. Just slowed him down.
"We're going back to the old stroke," Bowman said. "That's the last time he's doing that."