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The zenith came in February: Speedo's LZR Racer. To call this a swimsuit is to call the Space Shuttle a plane. Designed with input from NASA, fluid dynamics engineers, the avant-garde Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo of the fashion label Comme des Garçons, not to mention Phelps and Bowman, its arrival rocked the swimming world. Technological doping and unfair advantage were among the responses to its core-stabilizing, vibration-reducing polyurethane compression panels. "What we're finding is that swimmers who've worn the suit have dropped two percent off their best times," Bowman says. "Which is an enormous amount." Since its release, 48 world records have been set in the LZR. And when U.S. coach Mark Schubert predicted that any swimmer not wearing it "may end up at home watching on NBC," rival companies scrambled to create similar designs, and to stave off mutiny among their swimmers, none of whom intend to leave 2% in the locker room.
VI. THE POOL
There are pools and there are pools, but for swimmers there's one question: Is it fast? Fast equals world records. Take Athens, where surprisingly few were set. The pool was outdoors, which meant sun in a backstroker's eyes and headwinds in the sprints. Worse, it was shallow. Deep water absorbs turbulence, while shallow water deflects it. Shallow can also mean warm, and the perfect race temperature is cold, somewhere in the neighborhood of 76° Fahrenheit.
The Beijing pool has been engineered for greatness. Rumored to have cost $200 million, the Water Cube is a liquid temple in which heaviness has no place. Its very walls are ethereal, made of a translucent plastic that's only .008 of an inch thick. Though its design has simultaneously drawn raves for innovation and criticism that it's "not Chinese enough," among swimmers and coaches the verdict is in: "I've looked at the specs," says Bowman. "The venue is spectacular. It is very, very fast."
VII. THE OTHER
Personally, I don't think that what he is doing really has anything to do with what I did. I do think that what I did has a major impact on what he's trying to do. Therein lies the difference.
"Michael's a different person than he was in Athens," Bowman says. "In 2004 he was still this relatively young kid who was going into something we didn't know anything about. Nobody had ever done it!" The uncharted water was Phelps's Olympic schedule; starting at the 2000 Games, a semifinal round was added, meaning that a finalist in any 50-, 100- or 200-meter event now races three times rather than two. There were nights in Athens when Phelps, still reeling from the finals of one race, was herded from the warm-down pool onto the medal stand, then back to the blocks for the semifinal of another event—all in less than 30 minutes. The extra workload is just one of the reasons that comparing Phelps with Spitz is impossible. It's beyond apples and oranges; it's more like apples and PowerBars.
While Spitz represented the cutting edge of his era, he swam without cap or goggles and in full, mustachioed splendor. Phelps will be shaved down to the last follicle and be as aerodynamic as a fuselage, and he'll be able to see, but even those advantages are offset by the depth of the competition and the scalding, Testarossa speed that defines 21st-century swimming.
Then, consider that in Munich, Spitz raced 13 times, including in four individual events—freestyle and butterfly sprints, with the 200 as his longest distance. In Athens, Phelps raced 17 times, in five individual events, in all four strokes, at distances up to 400 meters. And in Beijing, Phelps's schedule will again require him to swim at least 17 times, in the 100 and 200 butterfly, 200 free, 200 and 400 IM and three relays. As for career longevity, Spitz swam in two Games, a disappointing 1968 followed by the triumphal '72. Phelps made his debut in Sydney, then dominated Athens and isn't half finished. "I'll go one more," Phelps says, meaning that after Beijing he's up for London in 2012. The Spitz-Phelps competition is neat, and it's sexy. But with all due respect, it's already over.
VIII. THE MOMENT