ROME — For those who thought Michael Phelps was just stopping by for a Roman holiday, no way.
This guy means business when he's in the pool.
On to London!
As for he rest of the American swim team, well, there's a little work to do if the country is going to maintain its position atop the world pecking order.
Even coming off his longest layoff and the embarrassment of being photographed inhaling from a marijuana pipe, Phelps turned in another remarkable performance over eight days at the Foro Italico. He completed it Sunday night by helping the U.S. set the 43rd world record of the fastest meet in history in the 400-meter medley relay.
OK, he didn't win another eight golds. This time, he made do with five golds and a silver.
Still, Phelps showed plenty of fire, even when there's really nothing left to prove.
"I never want to look back on my career and ask, 'What if?'" he said.
No worries there. When Phelps is back in top condition, it's hard to imagine anyone standing in the way of anything he puts his mind to.
That loss to Paul Biedermann? It just figures to fire up the world's greatest swimmer. Look what happened when Milorad Cavic tried to get in Phelps' head.
"An incredible talent, an incredible background and probably the greatest mental toughness I've ever witnessed in an athlete," raved Mark Schubert, general manager of USA Swimming, who was especially impressed with Phelps' thrilling win over Cavic in a 100 butterfly showdown that featured plenty of smack talk beforehand.
Coach Bob Bowman said Phelps will get all of two weeks off before he's back in the pool, even though his next meet isn't likely to be until December when the U.S. faces an all-star team from Britain, France and Russia.
Everything is pointing toward the 2012 Olympics, which Phelps insists will be his farewell to the sport he has dominated like no one else.
"I think Michael will be the first to tell you his preparation wasn't the same here as it was in Beijing," Schubert said. "But the mental toughness, you really can't compare it with anyone."
Swimming the butterfly leg, Phelps helped the U.S. pull away from Germany and Australia to win in 3 minutes, 27.28 seconds. That easily broke the mark of 3:29.34 set by the Americans at last summer's Olympics, another relay team that included Phelps.
"That relay brings out the best in me," Phelps said. "It doesn't matter how much energy I have, it's all going to go into every race. That's one of the things that I enjoy most — stepping out onto the blocks no matter what kind of shape I'm in."
Phelps took six months off after his Beijing triumph, drew a three-month suspension from competition after the infamous pipe photo — and he was still honored as the outstanding male swimmer of the championships. Italy's Federica Pellegrini received the female award at the final major meet for high-tech bodysuits, which are being banned officially on Jan. 1 and likely before that in U.S.
We aren't likely to see these sort of times for years, maybe decades.
"It certainly made it fun with all the records," Schubert said. "But I'm looking forward to it going back to normal."
He'd certainly like to see the U.S. put a little more distance on the rest of the world. The other countries are catching up — fast.
The U.S. had its worst showing at these every-other-year championships since 1994, when the meet also was held at Rome. The American showing — 10 golds, six silvers, six bronzes — was its lowest total since that team from 15 years ago managed only 21 medals overall.
"The world is becoming so much more competitive," said Aaron Peirsol, who learned that the hard way when he shockingly failed to qualify for the 100 backstroke final. "That can only be a beneficial thing for swimming. Competition raises the level of everybody."
The U.S. is used to dominating in the pool.
At the last worlds in Melbourne, the Americans piled up 36 medals — 20 golds, 13 silvers and three bronzes. That provided the spark heading into last year's Beijing Olympics, where the U.S. actually won even more golds (21) with fewer events, part of a 31-medal haul that left no doubt which country was on top.
The Americans still led at Rome, but with a much smaller margin. Australia was only six behind in the medal standings with three golds, four silvers and nine bronzes (and that was a disappointing performance for the team from Down Under).
China won 10 medals, signaling a rise that everyone expected for Beijing but maybe was a year behind schedule. Germany captured nine medals, and Britain claimed seven — an encouraging performance by a country that will undoubtedly be looking to improve even more heading into its home Olympics, the 2012 London Games.
The U.S. men were expected to carry the load on a team loaded with females still in their teens, and that turned out to be the case as the males won eight golds, the females only two.
Still, the men weren't quite as impressive as everyone projected. There was Peirsol's shocker. Phelps lost to Biedermann in the 200 freestyle. The sprinters didn't manage a medal in the 50 or 100 free.
"I know the men's team, we got off to a pretty flat start," Peirsol said. "Once we settled into the meet, we started kind of raising our level. We had no choice. The meet was incredibly fast. The rest of the world was ready to step up."
The U.S. knew the women's team was rebuilding after Beijing. Ariana Kukors pulled off an unexpected gold in the 200 individual medley, but this group seemed mostly like kids on the big stage for the first time. The biggest shocker came in the 400 medley relay, an event the Americans had won gold or silver in at every previous world championship; they didn't even get out of the preliminaries in Rome.
Not even Dara Torres could help. The 42-year-old gave it a go with an ailing knee and swimsuit issues, but she failed to get out of the preliminaries in the 50 butterfly and finished last in the final of the 50 free.
Still, Torres was encouraged.
"I think the U.S. women have done much better than people expected coming out of trials," she said. "They stood up and gave their best effort and I think it's a very bright future."
The same could be said for Phelps.