With 100 Backstroke On Orlando Slate, A Look At Michael Phelps’ Excellence in Event

Bob Bowman and Michael Phelps, courtesy of USA Swimming
Bob Bowman and Michael Phelps, courtesy of USA Swimming

Michael Phelps hasn’t had the chance to race the 100 backstroke in elite form, but as he prepares to contest the event this weekend, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been superb.

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Comments

ThereaLuigi

Yes, the 100 backstroke is the big question mark of his swimming career. What could he have achieved? He obviously had to focus on freestyle in his quest for more medals.

However it is amazing to think that at one point he was a potential individual medalist on the global scene in 3 out of 4 strokes, in both the 200 and 100 of the stroke (well except perhaps freestyle)

stabilo

Great article. Also in 2007 World championships his 4×100 Free lead off leg was faster than the individual 100Free winners. His 200 Back in Indianapolis was 1.54.65, just shy of Lochte’s new WR of 1.54.32. Taking a little more liberty with the 400 Free (based on his 200Free/400IM WRs), and it’s not ridiculous to say Phelps was the best swimming in the world at 100, 200, 400 Free, 100, 200 Back, 100, 200 Fly, 200, 400 IM. I don’t doubt he could have had both Backstroke WRs if he focussed on them.

Craig Lord

stabilo – the 100m and 400m free stretch a point and on backstroke, given he has done all the others on your list at top level with top results, he can still prove it by doing it, if he wishes… what we can’t say is that he was ‘the best swimmer’ over 100 400 free nor 100 and 200 back… he wasn’t. His 400 free best is a 3:46.73 (outside the top 50 all-time, and beyond 45th all-time in textile) and in a year that produced a season best from a certain Ian Thorpe. Michael made decisions; his 400 was 8th all-time at the time – a bit like Thorpe’s 200IM – he never focussed on it – and if he had he would have been quicker but unlikely to have been quick enough to be the best (as he was and remains over 400m free) …

stabilo

Craig – I was indeed taking liberties, especially with the 400. The 100 less so, at least in 2007, where he was the fastest at the World championships. That’s close enough to ‘best in the world’ for the point – (being a miser I don’t have full access to the rankings so possibly there were others faster at other times in the year).

I would say that 0.03s off the WR in an ‘outside’ event with no specialised training is ‘better’ than the actual WR from a specialist backstroker, though obviously not technically faster (and would hardly be comfort to come 2nd in a race and say that!)

The 400 Free is interesting because as you say he never focussed on it, but given his 200Free and 400IM, there must have been some massive potential there. I remember reading that his training was tailored for the 200Fly, 1500Free, 400IM in that order (I think – those 3 events anyway) when younger to build a base, and that he raced one 1500 a year, but never seriously. Not saying he’d get the WR, and it is all speculating, but 3.44.30 for Gold in 2007 Worlds sounds eminently achievable. I think it reasonable to say that if he switched programs at the eve of 2007 championships he would be right in the mix for a gold in 100, 400 Free, 100, 200 Back.

aswimfan

Stabilo,

I am pretty sure that even Phelps himself would tell you that “no, he is not the best in 100/400 free by any stretch of imagination”.

And especially 400 free. Have you forgotten Montreal?

Craig, Thorpe’s 200 IM is not a fitting analogy. At least Thorpe won a world championships silver in 200 IM, while Phelps didn’t even advance to final in Montreal even after sacrificing two of his regular events. The better analogy would be Thorpe’s 100 back. Thorpe won 100 back silver in commonwealth championships

ThereaLuigi

Re: MP’s 100 free. The 2007 relay leg being faster than the solo race does not impress me much, because that was a slow final. There are maybe better examples for your case, Stabilo. In 2005 he finaled at Worlds in the individual race; in 2010 Pan Pacs swam a 48-low relay first leg (and yes, faster than the fastest finalist in the individual race); in 2012 he was a sub48 100 free swimmer. Those were the same years when he was relatively “weak” in his trademark races (to the extent that a human fish like him can be weak).

stabilo

Not forgetting Montreal, but would say that’s an unrepresentative example. Perhaps I should have qualified “in 2007”, which was quite weak in 400 (and 100) Free. That qualification and recognising it’s all speculation makes it less fun :). Unless you’re saying you think 3.46.7 was about as quick as he could go?

Craig Lord

depends how big the speculation is, stabilo; too steep is even less fun than too flat cos the fall is going to hurt like hell 🙂 He was in fine form in 2003 … he may have got a couple of seconds off – but I don’t believe he would have delivered a 3:40 (and had Bowman thought he could, he would have 🙂

aswimfan

Stabilo,

The energy distribution of 400 free is different than in 400 IM. Phelps was so good in fly and back that he didn’t have to expend most energy during the fly and back legs of the 400 IM.

But in 400 free, he didn’t have such luxury. His free technique was nowhere near as good as his fly so he had to expend more effort fro the beginning of 400 free. Phelps swam 400 free not just one time in competition, but several times from 2003-2007 and that 3:46.73 is the only one under 3:47.

As for a relay swim being faster than the individual winner, this is not uniqe. Sjostrom always did it in 200 free. Likewise, Trickett and Coughlin swam faster first leg in 4×200 free than the 200 free winners in 2005 worlds and 2004 Athens respectively.
And Phelps was only 0.01 second faster than individual winning time, which was a slow final, but keeping in mind that they had to go through 3 rounds of 100 free while Phelps only had to swim once.

We can’t do ifs and buts too excessively. Can we call Lochte as the London Olympics champion in 200 IM? of course not, even though I would argue that he could have won it had he not swum the 200 back final half hour earlier.
Likewise with calling Phelps being the best in the events that he did not eve compete in.

stabilo

Aswimfan – I think your example of Sjostrom is good to support the idea that the ‘best’ swimmer may not win the gold for that event. (Can of worms!)

I certainly would not say that Lochte was Olympic champion, but to say Lochte was the best 200 IM swimmer in 2012 is, like you say, a possibility. I would also not say James Guy is/was the best 200 Freestyler in the world (sorry James).. even with that big shiny gold thing round his neck. Hope it is clear why such an argument is not as silly as it sounds. I like my champions to break the WR :). (In textile. 🙂 🙂 )

I would also not want to argue with you or Craig or anyone else much more knowledgeable than me if there are reasons to say Phelps’ 400Free would not improve so much on 3.47. But I am a bit surprised if you think his Free technique was so much worse than Fly. Not saying he could go 3.40 by any means, but 3.43? Anyway, slow year and possibly pointless speculation aside, to even be debatable at winning any of 9 individual events at a single WC is insane.

Craig Lord

Yes, truly astonishing versatility, stabilo – and I think pure focus would have placed him in that 3:43-45 realm had it happened… only so much room in the pan…

Felix Sanchez

I completely agree with aswimfan’s point about the difference in energy distribution, however given the conditioning and fitness Phelps was capable of, I do believe that if focused on the event he would have done special things.

I know that for while Bowman harboured hopes of a real good run at the 400free, and yes, Montreal is not representative. Phelps wasn’t in the best shape then, and really just had a poorly judged performance trying to save something for the final. However, I do distinctly remember him putting up a bearded, unrested 3.47 at one of the Grand Prix events several years ago. It was enough for me to disagree with these conservative sentiments: fully focused sub-3.40, or close, was possible. (And even if it wasn’t, Craig’s statement that if Bowman thought it was possible, they would have done it, doesn’t follow. They’ve already got five events they can win – that was the whole point surely).

aswimfan

Felix,

swimming one time fast 400 is one thing, but to swim two maximum effort 400 is another thing.

Montreal was the evidence. Phelps may have been trying to save some energy in the prelims, but he was not a natural fast 400 free like other specialists, so he failed.

swimming two rounds and three rounds of fast swims is underrated. There is some truth when people said that you can’t compare Pheps’ marginally faster swims in the nationals last year with the swims of Le Clos and Cseh in Kazan.
Phelps swam probably 50% effort in the prelims and no semis, while the swimmers in kazan had to swim close to max efforts in the prelims, and then had to deal with semis also.

Of course Phelps wold have been much faster in the 400 had he focused on it. Just like Thorpe would have been in 200 IM or Thorpe would have been backstroke world champion in back events had he foused on it (he was actually focusing on backstroke in his youth, but it was 400 that gave him the opportunity in 1997 pan pacs, leading him to different path. Even then, he still won 100 back commonwealth games silver). Or just like any other swimmers.. such as what Hosszu would have done had she focused in 200-400 free.. destroyed the WRs?

Bottom line, I agree that Phelps would have swum faster 400 free had he focused his training on it. But to speculate or in stabilo’s case calling him as best in 400 free is a strecth in imagination.

aswimfan

Felix,

If Bowman thought Phelps could swim sub 3:40 in 400 free, he would have forced him to swim it. Just like they did with the 200 free.

aswimfan

If Phelps could swim sub 3:40 as felix speculate, Coughlin, Trickett, Sjostrom not only would have broken but also destroyed the 200 free WR.

Felix Sanchez

Swimming rounds certainly is different – no disagreement here – but I believe Montreal 400 was a bust performance, not clear evidence of anything.

As I said before, I believe Bowman did always quite fancy a run at the 400free, but to say he would have forced Phelps doesn’t stack up. There is a slight freestyle cache, but they all ready have five strong events (including freestyle). They ‘might’ have been able to get 3.40, but 3.41 might not take the title. Remember, when Phelps was emerging in 2000 the WR was already 3.40.5, whereas in the events he did focus on he has obliterated the 2000 WRs. No reason to swap an event you dominate for one where you might win.

I don’t really understand the last comment. Is it because of fast relay splits by those swimmers? That’s nothing to do with the case for Phelps’ 400. He had some decent 400s, but more importantly, by muscle profile and aerobic capacity he is natural middle distance swimmer. While you’re right to say it is important, don’t over-estimate the difficulty of swimming rounds. After all, Phelps did take 0.2 off the 200 free WR in the middle of a massive schedule.

aswimfan

Felix,

I don’t think you got your facts correct.

Phelps didn’t obliterate 200 free WR. Do you think a faster by 0.2 seconds in 200 counts for obliteration?

Unless you meant his WR in shiny suit.
Well, in that case, Biedermann obliterated 200 WR.

Also, you gave example how Phelps swam 3:47 in a grand prix, suggesting he did it while not in optimum condition. But he was certainly fully rested and tapered in Montreal, or it was just in my illusion?
Which one is an illusion, suggesting something that never happened versus facts?

Felix Sanchez

That’s a bit of a spiky comment aswimfan. I suggest a re-read.

0.2 is not an obliteration, and I said nothing to suggest that is. The point was that when Phelps was starting his senior career in 2000 the 400 WR was already down to 3.40. However, in the events he did focus on from there he has managed to swim much faster than the 2000 WRs. Given that fact, the suggestion that Bowman would have insisted on 400free if he thought 3.40 was possible is ungrounded.

No one said Montreal was an illusion. Do you not allow that everyone occasionally has bad swims or misjudged swims? On top of that, Phelps and Bowman have both admitted to a training and commitment drop off the season following Athens.

aswimfan

Phelps tried his hands on 100/200 back and there were never even part of any of his worlds/olympics schedule, and he almost broke WRs in both events.

Phelps tried to make it in 400 free, and even swam it at world championships sacrificing two of his core events and he was nowhere close to WR, tp say the least.

Those are the facts.

Felix Sanchez

We all (I hope) know the facts; the fun is in the speculation.

aswimfan

So based on those facts, you can certainly make a strong case for Phelps to be the best in 100/200 back had he focused on them, but to do it also for 400 free is a stretch of imagination.

How would you think if I claim that Thorpe could have been the best in 400 IM had he focused on it?

After all, he was the best by far in 400 free, and he won 200 IM worlds silver and not training specifically for it. And he swam 4:24 already as a 14 yo.

I’m sure you would call me deluded.

Craig Lord

Your hope is hope itself, Felix 🙂

Felix Sanchez

Well if someone were to suggest it in earnest – and they weren’t getting rather touchy and aggressive – I would be to happy to contribute.

As for the case under discussion, those facts aren’t the only information available. As covered, I doubt the significance of the Montreal result. Besides, even look at the improvement in his 200 time over the following two years: that alone ‘should’ translate to a decent jump.

Principally this is acombination of freestyle results and physiological suitability to the distance (as said, I do agree with your previous point about the different energy outlay over 400free/400IM, but also see enough to consider Phelps a true middle distance swimmer). Plus a few shoddy 4.07s.

ThereaLuigi

I am not fully convinced he could have been a top 400 freestyler, and not because of Montreal (I think 2005 was an off-year for him). The reason is, I always felt that freestyle was really his third stroke. He managed to be the best in the world in the 200 free mainly because of his incredible under-waters and body dolphin, rather than his over-the-surface swimming (which is still first class of course, but not as good as Thorpe’s, VDH’s etc). But I don’t think you can stretch your underwaters the way he did in the 200 in a 400 race, even if you have his incredible lung capacity.
Of course this is speculation as well. 🙂

Craig Lord

There’s speculation and speculation, TheraL 🙂

Felix Sanchez

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: the extent to which Phelps could maintain those under waters over 400 is one of the biggest parts of this.

Certainly a very utilitarian freestyle, as opposed to Thorpe’s which was beauty itself. Still, I suppose we could say that of Pellegrini and Ledecky.

ThereaLuigi

I am not sure I got the reference to Pellegrini and Ledecky, Felix? I find them very different from each other and from Phelps. Did you mean to say they have an “utilitarian” freestyle as well?

Felix Sanchez

No, I meant that Pellegrini has a very beautiful freestyle, yet Ledecky has managed to go faster with a more utilitarian/less attractive stroke.

Craig Lord

Utilitarian meaning efficient, able to get the job done etc…but sounding rather dowdy… no question that some swimmers will be considered as having more aesthetic strokes. There’s beauty in the freestyle strokes of Phelps and Ledecky, too.

ThereaLuigi

Both Phelps and Ledecky have a “galloping” stroke. Ledecky however has this incredible rhythm and turnover that she can keep for unimaginable lengths. I think she is more efficient over the water than Phelps is (relative to their differences in size and strength). And I find the underwater part of her stroke to be flawless. The part above the water may not please all eyes, but it’s incredibly efficient. As a freestyler I rate her above Phelps.

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