at the Manchester Aquatics Centre
20 December 2009
Michael Rock is a 22-year-old Liverpudlian who studies law at the University of Manchester and yesterday he beat the greatest swimmer of all time, Michael Phelps, in a discipline in which they both love, the 200m butterfly.
Therein lies part of the beauty of the inaugural Duel in the Pool between Europe’s E-Stars and the USA, in which the latter romped to victory. And therein lies the folly of swimming’s “suit era”, which has now effectively ended.
Rock was wearing a polyurethane bodysuit, banned as of 1 January. The era of “doping on a hanger” – when more than 250 world records fell in 20 months thanks to space-age kit – is over.
Farewell then to stitch-free, ultrasonically welded seams, water-resistant fabric and strategically placed panels designed by NASA. You thrilled as many people as you infuriated; but you were cheating. Swimming will return to being a sport based on talent and hard work, not equipment.
Phelps was dressed yesterday in a textile jammer that will be legal under the new rules. That, and pretty much that alone, is why Rock beat Phelps. Not that it will matter to the Brit, who will one day tell his grandkids he beat the GOAT. He won’t mention who was wearing what.
His personal achievement, however dressed up, was still one of several bright spots of the Duel for British swimming, if not the E-Stars, who were trounced over two days of competition. The USA won 185-78 in a contest that is fresh to these shores and was staged primarily to boost swimming’s appeal in Britain.
Judging by the 150 autograph hunters still milling outside the venue long after competition ended, a decent step forward has been taken. There were 30 events, and the USA won 21 of them, with the E-Stars taking nine. Of those, Britons won eight, and British women six, with Fran Halsall adding the 50m freestyle yesterday to two wins on Friday. Lizzie Simmonds won the 100m backstroke (for a second success of the meet) and Rebecca Adlington cruised to victory in the 800m free.
Rock shocked the human dolphin in the 200m fly, and James Goddard won the 200m individual medley. The only non-British E-Stars win of the meet was by Federico Colbertaldo of Italy in the men’s 800m free.
The sextet of wins by British women is why British swimming has so very much to look forward to in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. The host nation will have a golden generation of female swimmers reaching their peak and in contention for a cascade of gold.
There were up to six swimmers per race here, a maximum of three from each side, with five points for each win, three for second place and one for third.
The USA took 11 of the 14 races on Friday night and led 89-33 going in to yesterday’s second and final session. They won 96-45 yesterday, and also bagged all three world records on the day, through Rebecca Soni in the 100m breaststroke, Julia Smit in the 200m IM, and the men’s 4 x 100m freestyle relay, with Phelps, fittingly, bringing the victors home on the final leg.
Adlington kick-started a good day for Britain by winning the 800m in commanding fashion, ahead of compatriot Keri-Anne Payne, with the USA’s Amber McDermott just holding off Britain’s Jazmin Carlin for third.
Colbertaldo then took the men’s 800m, and the USA won both 200m freestyle races, with Phelps third in the men’s. Of the end of the suit era, the 14-times Olympic champion said: “What I’m looking forward to is being the best I can for 2012. I want to see who can keep themselves in shape and who can work hardest. It’ll be more of a sport and not just putting on a suit.”
Casual observers will look at the final score and think the result was embarrassing for Europe but the numbers do not tell the full tale. First, the US have long been the dominant force in swimming, winning 31 swimming medals (12 gold, nine silver) at the Beijing Olympics. They were top by a mile in the swimming medals table.
Second, the US had a strong squad here, full of Olympic and world champions. The E-Stars came from just Britain, Italy and Germany. There was no France, because their sponsor, EDF, is a fierce rival of British Gas, which sponsors British Swimming and this event. There was no Russia, Netherlands, Hungary or Serbia, all of who would have added points.
Even the Brits, Italians and Germans were missing key swimmers, all multiple Olympic or world medallists in Jo Jackson, Federica Pellegrini, Alessia Filippi, Paul Biedermann and Britta Steffen.
Yet in Adlington, Halsall and Co, the future is rosy. And on a good day, even the men can Rock.