Rookie error costs Peirsol
Aaron Peirsol won't be swimming in the 100m backstroke final
With 11 world records broken, swimmers aren't as enthusiastic about the feat
Michael Phelps faces his biggest challenge yet in the 200m freestyle
Sometimes, even veterans make rookie mistakes. Aaron Peirsol is one the greatest swimmers of his generation, arguably the greatest backstroker of all time. But at the swimming world championships on Monday, Peirsol made a bad error in judgment that cost him a spot in the final of the 100-meter backstroke that could have earned him a spot in history Tuesday.
Peirsol eased his way through the semifinal heat, as he sometimes does at major competitions, to save some energy for the final. That usually isn't a problem for the seven-time Olympic medalist, who was going for his record-tying fourth straight world title in the same individual event. Only this time, Peirsol glided in at 53.22 seconds -- notably, a time that was faster than the world record 53.45 he swam on the first leg of the medley relay at the Athens Olympics in 2004. But in today's age of fast suits and fast times, it was only good enough for ninth place among the 16 semifinalists, one off the Tuesday final group of eight.
"I thought I was going faster," Peirsol said. "I am very disappointed. I completely misjudged my race. I have to go on, pick myself up and focus on my next events."
This doesn't mean Peirsol's lost his touch. He lowered the world record to 51.94 at the U.S. trials in Indianapolis on July 8 and could have gone nearly as fast on Monday. "I thought I was in a much better place than I was," Peirsol added. "In backstroke, you don't see much; you go by feel."
Give Peirsol credit for being the stand-up, no-excuse guy he has always been, and compare that attitude to Serbia's Milorad Cavic, who won the non-Olympic 50-butterfly race Monday, touching in 22.67 seconds. His post-race press conference was sadly more noteworthy than the race itself.
Cavic continues to cling to the absurdity that he touched the wall ahead of Michael Phelps in the final of the 100-meter freestyle at the Beijing Olympics, despite photo evidence to the contrary. Instead Cavic blames a faulty timing system on the result that left him one one-hundredth of a second behind Phelps in second place.
"I did touch the wall first," Cavic insisted. "Omega didn't record it that way ... Having that race saved my career. I would have stopped swimming if I had won that race. I'm an animal of emotion. Because of what happened, I did return to swimming with a desire I would not have had had I won the gold medal."
It's a shame. Check out the definitive underwater photo from SI's Heinz Kluetmeier (right), and the image clearly shows Phelps' hand being bent well back by the wall, as Cavic's is just getting to it. That's irrefutable proof, something Cavic must be pretending not to see. Case closed. Yes, Cavic may be trying to fire himself up, but the fantasy cling is obscuring his good performances.
On to the most surprisingly underwhelming news of the night: the number of records broken so far. There were five of them Monday night, but after swimmers set six of them on Sunday, it almost seems like an afterthought to talk about records.
Still, the story of Ariana Kukors seems like the ultimate act of redemption. Kukors had placed only third at the U.S. trials in Indianapolis in the 200 individual medley, which meant, in theory, that she wouldn't swim the race here in Rome. Kukors' time of 2:11.07 in Indy left her almost two seconds off Julia Smit's 2:09.34 that won the race, but barely behind Elizabeth Pelton's 2:11.03 in second. Luckily for Kukors, Pelton had a conflict with another event on the slightly different schedule in Rome, so she decided to scratch from the IM and leave that place to Kukors.
On Monday, the decision paid off for the second time in two days. Kukors held off Australian superstar Stephanie Rice to win the gold medal and lower the world record to 2:06.15. On Sunday, Kukors had swum a stunning 2:07.03 in the semis to break Rice's world record. The keys here were Kukors' fantastic turns and extended time underwater that nearly accounted for the entire difference between first and second. "It was something I've been working on getting right for a few years," Kukors said. "I tried to stay underwater as long as my lungs could stand it tonight. I'm very pleased to hear world champion next to my name, because it's my first."
In the semifinals of the women's 100 breaststroke, Rebecca Soni of the U.S. touched the wall in 1:04.84, smashing the mark of 1:05.09 Australia's Leisel Jones set in Melbourne three years earlier. Soni smiled as she touched the wall, but didn't jump, scream and emote the way a history-maker would. Was this achievement less special because of all the record falling around her? "That probably has something to do with it," Soni said. "I don't think that cheapens it. I just don't know what to think about it. This isn't like any other meet."
Australia's Brenton Rickard swam 58.58 to win the gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke. Rickard lowered the world record of 58.91 set by Japan's Kosuke Kitajima at the Beijing Olympics. France's Hughes Duboscq finished second in the heat in a time of 58.64 that also went under Kitajima's mark. Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom lowered the world mark she set in the semis here from 56.44 seconds to 56.06 in winning the 100-meter butterfly, .17 ahead of Australia's Jessicah Schipper. Russia's Anastasia Zueva set a world record 58.48 seconds in the semifinals of the women's 100-meter backstroke.
Get ready for a great final in the men's 200-meter freestyle on Tuesday. Yes, Michael Phelps will be the favorite. The Olympic champ and world-record holder qualified third for the final and barely broke a sweat. But there is an emerging threat who looks primed to challenge Phelps' reign of supremacy: Germany's Paul Biedermann swam a 1:43.65, still a stroke off the 1:42.96 Phelps threw down in Beijing. Two months ago, this looked like a gimme race for Phelps, who had eight of history's 10 fastest times in the event. Then Biedermann went under 1:45 for the first time at a race in Berlin.
On Sunday, he broke the world record in the 400 free. Tomorrow, he'll set his sights on Phelps. "I've learned a lot in the last few years," he said. "I thought Phelps would be faster in the semis here. I feel good about my chance and I'm looking forward to tomorrow."
Not so fast. This is the type of fuel Phelps loves. Put him in a solo time trial with nothing on the line and he'd have a tough time getting out of his own way. Stick a threat in the lane next to him and he gets an extra propeller on his back. "Paul's dropped like three seconds in the last year," Phelps said after his semifinal. "I have to really prepare myself because nobody knows what he can do."
Brian Cazeneuve will be filing daily for SI.com from the world championships. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.