Michael Phelps will have to share the spotlight at these world championships. Those sleek-but-soon-to-be-obsolete bodysuits are having their last hurrah.
Now that FINA has decided to ban high-tech suits that cover most of the body beginning in 2010, the Foro Italico will likely be remembered as the spot where one last great assault on the record book took place.
Every time figures to be under fire as swimmers wearing rubberized suits that increase buoyancy and improve stamina take aim with added urgency, knowing that whatever comes out of the Eternal City figures to be rather enduring once the guys go back to jammers (suits that only go from the waist to the top of the knee) and the women can't wears suits beyond the shoulders or below the knees.
"That's a little extreme," American sprint specialist Cullen Jones said. "Wow, it's really down to the swimmer now."
Not yet. The new rules governing suits _ which will also require they be made from textile fabrics _ still must be sorted out and won't go into effect until next year. And this is the biggest meet outside the Olympics, with everyone setting up their training to peak over the next eight days.
Phelps shrugged off the all the hype about the current generation of suits, which has been pointed to as major reason more than 100 world records were set last year and nearly 30 have fallen already in 2009, finally prompting the governing body to step in.
"When you're competing at the highest levels, it's because of the work you do in training," Phelps said. "That's how I always looked at it growing up, and that's how I'll continue to do it now. I've worked as hard as I can. I'm where I'm at right now because I put in countless hours, because I put in all that time looking at the black line (on the bottom of the pool) every day, up and down.
"I'm not here to talk about suits. I'm here to compete in the world championships. That's my focus. I've got times I want to achieve over the next week. That's all I'm focused on."
He has cut back on the eight-event program that produced six gold medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics, seven wins at the 2007 world championships in Melbourne and a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics last summer, breaking Mark Spitz's iconic record.
Phelps won't be swimming either the 200- or the 400-meter individual medley, dropping those grueling races after winning them both in China with world-record times. He'll have three individual events in Rome _ the 200 freestyle, along with the 100 and 200 butterfly _ and be part of all three relay teams as well. But he'll actually have entire day off in the middle of the meet.
First up Sunday: a rematch of that thrilling Olympic showdown with the French in the 400 free relay, a race the Americans pulled out when Jason Lezak overtook Alain Bernard in the final 15 meters to win by 0.08 seconds.
The U.S. won't have Lezak for this one; he chose to skip the world championships to compete at Israel's Maccabiah Games in tribute to his Jewish heritage.
But he'll be tuning in Sunday to see how his former teammates do against the French, especially with someone else in the anchor role that Lezak held down for years on the national team.
"Looking forward to it," Lezak said in a text message to The Associated Press. "Even though the French are favorites again, I think it will be a good race."
Bob Bowman, who is coaching the American team and also serves as Phelps' personal coach, wouldn't reveal his plans for the relay, though it's generally assumed Phelps will maintain his usual role as the leadoff swimmer instead of switching to the anchor leg as Lezak's replacement.
When asked Saturday at the final American practice whether he had considered moving Phelps from beginning to end, Bowman smiled and said coyly, "I have given it some thought."
But even the world's greatest swimmer would have a hard time replacing Lezak, who will long be remembered for overcoming a seemingly insurmountable margin when he dove into the pool against Bernard, a former world record holder in the 100 free. Lezak smartly drafted along the lane rope in Bernard's massive wake and overcame him at the finish with the fastest relay leg in history.
"He was huge for us," Bowman said. "We all know Jason had a history of putting up great relay splits under pressure."
The French would love to get back at the Americans, but this isn't the Olympics.
"Even if the Americans are beaten, that will not be revenge for what happened last year," French coach Lionel Horter told the newspaper L'Equipe. "Any revenge can only come at the 2012 Olympics,"
Lezak plans to be there waiting for them, hopefully in that familiar anchor leg at age 36.
"Even the Beatles went their own way eventually!" he joked in a text. "My goal is to have the reunion tour in London 2012."
That won't help the Americans at this meet. The French can send out an imposing lineup led by Fred Bousquet (second-fastest time ever at 47.15) and Bernard (third-fastest at 47.20), and filled out by the likes of Amaury Leveaux, William Meynard and Fabian Gilot _ all of whom have broken 48 seconds.
By comparison, the Americans counter with a potential lineup that includes only two swimmers, Phelps and Garrett Weber-Gale, who've gotten into the 47s. Also in the mix for the Americans are Nathan Adrian and David Walters, who went 1-2 in the final of the 100 free at the U.S. championships this month. An intriguing option is all-around star Ryan Lochte, who got in the mix by putting up a strong time in the preliminaries at Indianapolis.
"I believe it's going to be a competitive race," Bowman said. "My main concern is to make sure the anchor leg is important. If we're too far back, it's not going to matter."