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Michael Phelps at world championships in Rome looks ahead to a big challenge: Shaq

Phelps says swimming against Shaquille O'Neal on the basketball star's TV show 'is going to be absolutely awesome.' He also looks back on a rough year after the Olympics.

July 26, 2009|Lisa Dillman

ROME — This may well have been a new one in the storied career of Michael Phelps.

Phelps went through the paces at a pre-meet news conference at a major swim meet and was not asked about Mark Spitz, not even whether he was relieved, finally, not to be compared to Spitz any longer after eclipsing the icon by winning eight gold medals last summer at the Olympics in Beijing.

Instead, there was a light moment Friday near the end of the session about another future opponent looming over Phelps -- in a different way than Spitz once did -- one towering figure capable of blocking the sun.

Shaq.

Phelps will be swimming against Shaquille O'Neal as part of O'Neal's coming reality show featuring the Cleveland Cavaliers center against top athletes in other sports. (One wonders if Shaq will be called "the Big Tsunami" for the Phelps episode.)

"Being able to swim against a 7-foot-2, 300-pound man is going to be absolutely awesome," said Phelps, cutting O'Neal a break in the weight department.

"When I had the opportunity, when I was asked to do it, I quickly said yes."

Said Phelps' coach Bob Bowman, laughing, "I'm going to be coaching Shaq. Right now, we're sewing together three bodysuits."

And the Speedo factory will be putting in some serious overtime.

Spitz wasn't the only missing topic. It should also be noted that Phelps didn't have to field any questions about the British tabloid photo published in January of him holding a bong. Phelps, who was suspended for three months from competition by USA Swimming, considered quitting the sport in the aftermath of the controversy.

(Then again, it all hardly registers on the scandal meter around here, considering Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has dominated the news on a daily basis.)

Phelps, who will compete in three individual events and probably three relays at the World Swimming Championships in Rome, came closer to addressing the incident than any of the reporters when he talked about his post-Beijing journey.

"It's been a long year," Phelps said. "There have been good times and bad times. Lots of high points and a lot of low points. It's been a learning year, both in and out of the pool. It's been a different journey -- sort of with the six-month break and trying to lose 20 pounds since I got back in the pool.

"And then, trying to switch my mind-set of not doing anything to focusing myself to prepare for Rome. Once I got back in the pool, it was kind of easy to turn that mind-set back on because that's something I've been used to my whole life."

Recalibrating the meter in a post-Olympic year is rarely easy for swimmers. Some leave the sport, flirt with retirement or opt to take the year off, like Natalie Coughlin, for instance.

Bowman said, "The hard part is when you take six months off and you just forget about everything. Then you come back and you're out of shape and you're tired and it's hard to remember what it's like to stand here with all these people."

At the Foro Italico pool complex, Phelps will be helped by a less stressful, lighter schedule than his previous campaigns at worlds. There will be no individual medleys on the program, no hated 400 IM. Just the 200-meter freestyle, the 200 butterfly and the 100 fly, in which he broke the world record earlier this month at nationals.

His first event will be today in the 400-meter freestyle relay (without anchor Jason Lezak, who is competing in Israel), a marquee race on Day 1 of the meet.

Two other members of that world-record-setting relay from the Olympics are with Phelps in Rome: Cullen Jones and Garrett Weber-Gale. The other two individual Olympic gold medalists from the men's team here are Aaron Peirsol (100 backstroke) and Ryan Lochte (200 backstroke).

Peirsol, who will be competing in his fourth world championships, is coming off a sensational performance at Indianapolis, in which he had world-record swims in the 100 and 200 backstrokes, lowering his own mark in the former and reclaiming the record from Lochte in the latter.

The final of the men's 200 backstroke is Friday.

If the men's team is in a state of transition, the women's squad is even more so with nine teenagers here in Rome. The ageless Dara Torres, at 42, balances it out, though. This is her second appearance at worlds, a mere 23 years after her debut.

Torres has spent plenty of time fielding questions from the newcomers on the U.S. team, and taken her fair share of teasing.

She posted a picture of the warmup pool on her Twitter account and noted it was the main pool for the Olympics here in 1960.

"Kids tease me and ask if I swam there then," Torres wrote.

There are a few sure things with swimmers: talk about the high-tech swimsuits (just banned by FINA but not in effect until 2010), Torres' getting ribbed about her age and Phelps getting motivational material from a foreign swimmer or coach, not that he needs such fodder.

He pulled out of the 100 freestyle at the national meet in Indianapolis because of a sore neck, and was criticized by two-time defending world champion Filippo Magnini of Italy.

"In my view, he realized he wasn't going to win and the neck ache was just an excuse," Magnini told reporters recently.

Said Phelps, "I'll go on record that I still have that neck problem. My neck was never an excuse. I'm never afraid to swim any events, and I actually want to swim that race. But we didn't want to put pressure on something and possibly jeopardize something in the future."

Said Bowman, "I think you'll be seeing Michael in the 100 free before too long. There are a lot of good competitors in that race. If you wait till next year it'll be a very different race than it will be this week."

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lisa.dillman@latimes.com

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World Swimming Championships

When: Today-Aug. 2.

Where: Rome.

TV: Channel 4,

Universal Sports.

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