Michael Phelps eased his way through the preliminary stages at the World Championships in Rome yesterday, qualifying second in the 200 metres butterfly heats. The American torpedo - who won a record eight gold medals at last year's Beijing Olympics - seemingly still had the fire in his belly when he made an effortless transition into the semi-finals later in a time of 1min 54.35secs.
Poland's Pawel Korzeniowski was quickest in the heats, with Phelps conserving his energy ahead of a battle with up-and-coming German Paul Biedermann in the 200 freestyle final. The other American, Tyler Clary, was third at 1:54.42. Biedermann was chasing a win in the final, after he broke Australian Ian Thorpe's long-standing world record to take the gold in the 400 freestyle. "He is swimming really well. He is probably having the best meet so far so being able to race him head-to-head, it's going to be fun," Phelps said ahead of last night's race.
"I never back down from challenges, I love challenges. "I just wanted to win my heat," said Phelps, who did just that after a sluggish start. "That's all I wanted to do [in the] morning. The biggest thing about that event is just getting into the finals." Controversy has surrounded Biedermann's staggering progress in the last year. The introduction of modern non-textile swim suits - favoured by the German - has been accused of harming swimming's credibility after prompting a raft of world records.
The suits are now due to be banned from 2010. Meanwhile, two Djibouti swimmers have gone missing from the World Championships according to reports from Italian police yesterday. Hassan Ahmed Harbi and Houmed Hassan Ali were due to compete yesterday, with Harbi scheduled to race in the 50m men's breaststroke heats and Ali on the entry list for the 100 freestyle. Neither swimmer made an appearance at their allotted events, sparking a search by local Police. The swimmers are said to have been missing since Monday. Reports in the Italian press suggest several North African athletes disappeared and became illegal immigrants after last month's Mediterranean Games in Pescara.