AP: Swim worlds open the post-Phelps era

Here’s a story by the Associated Press that is appearing in the print edition of Friday’s paper, but I thought I’d also run it on the blog.

The AP takes a look at the world aquatic championships — the first major international competition without superstar Michael Phelps.

Here’s the story by Andrew Dampf:

BARCELONA, Spain — The swimming world championships begin Saturday, and for the first time in more than a decade Michael Phelps won’t be competing.

Instead, the big names include Americans Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin, Sun Yang and Yi Shiwen of China, Chad le Clos of South Africa, and 16-year-old Ruta Meilutyte of Lithuania. Pool competition runs July 28-Aug. 4. Bremerton’s Nathan Adrian, the reigning Olympic 100 free champion, will swim in the 400 free relay July 28.

Open water swimming, synchronized swimming, diving and men’s and women’s water polo all begin Saturday.

“We will see how many stars come up, I have no doubt. Life goes on and on,” FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu told The Associated Press.

Phelps had his breakout meet in Barcelona in 2003 by winning four golds as an 18-year-old. He retired after last year’s London Olympics as the most decorated Olympian of all time, with 22 medals. He competed at his first worlds in 2001 in Fukuoka, Japan, breaking the world record in the 200-meter butterfly to become — at 15 years and 9 months — the youngest man ever to set a swimming world mark.

“For us, Phelps is an icon. He’s the greatest Olympic athlete of all time and I think it will be 100 years before someone matches his medals record,” Marculescu said.

So what about those reports that Phelps is considering returning for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics?

“It’s his decision, not ours. He worked very hard over the years and I think he wanted to do some other things in life. I hear he is playing golf. But I also think that maybe he is missing his love, which is swimming,” Marculescu said.

Other swimming story lines should be Australia’s attempt to bounce back from its poor showing in London, when it won only one gold for its worst showing in 20 years. Australia coach Leigh Nugent resigned in March.

Aussie sprinter James Magnussen will be defending his gold from the 2011 worlds in the 100 freestyle after settling for silver at the Olympics.

Meanwhile, France will want to prove itself again after finishing third in the London medals table behind the United States and China with Yannick Agnel, Florent Manaudou and Camille Muffat leading the way. Local standout Mireia Belmonte of Spain is a multi-medal threat.

Still, the year after an Olympics can be unpredictable, with many medalists choosing to train less after the games.

The first week of the championships is highlighted by diving — with that spectacular view of the city from the same Montjuic pool used for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics — and open water swimming in the harbor.

Swimming and synchronized swimming will be held inside the Palau Sant-Jordi arena, which was also built for the 1992 Games.

The post-Olympic year syndrome could be one of the reasons FINA decided to include high diving before even holding a World Cup event in the discipline, which is based on the Red Bull Cliff Diving series.

Swimming officials said they need innovation after watching the ancient sport of wrestling lose its spot on the Olympic program.

Temporary towers have been built for the discipline’s debut, with men set to leap from 30 yards and women from 22 yards.

The biggest crowds could come for high diving, which is free for fans, with organizers hoping that 25,000-30,000 spectators show up for the daring display of athletes flying through the air for three seconds at speeds of up to 55 mph.

About 20 men are expected to compete in high diving but only six women. Women competed for the first time in the Red Bull series earlier this month in Malcesine, Italy.

“It’s very small because it’s the beginning,” Marculescu said. “But you have to start from somewhere.”