Gold medal No 23 at world championships was delivered in some style by Michael Phelps today, the quality of the swim masked by the events of 2008 and 2009 but placed into context by the history of a signature event the American is still very much in tune with.
Unbeaten when it counts since Tom Malchow gave the 16-year-old cause to sharpen his blade back in 2002, Phelps has raced inside 1:54 no fewer than 13 times. No other man has ever raced inside 1:54 in a textile suit, while Phelps has done so five times, his latest effort the second best of those, the 1:52.09 in which he claimed the 2007 world title in Melbourne a towering monument to excellence that remains second best to his 1:51.51 world mark from Rome 2009 only if you consider the LZR to be as good as the Racer. And you guessed it: I don't.
Phelps looked relieved at the end of battle (race reports and stats) as he put his name to the gold count once more. Good to be back home. "I didn't want to lose that race again. Having a number of defeats this year is extremely frustrating for me and I didn't like the feeling," said Phelps. "So I kind of wanted to have the feeling of winning a race again. It feels good to win a race. It doesn't matter what it is so I dug as deep as I could that last 50, just tried to finish as strong as I could."
"I knew Wu Peng was finishing very well, he finished very well yesterday and Takeshi has always been there at the end," Phelps added. "I kind of tried to put it into the biggest over-gear I could put it in and just get to the wall."
The 26-year-old, as ever, noted the elbow room in the result. "I'm super-happy with swimming faster than I did last year, close to a second-and-a-half but I still want more in that event and I want to be faster. I think that was a little too close for my comfort," he said. "I'm happy but for me this is just a small step for my next year and I think I've also noticed that the older I've gotten, the more I do have to control my emotional energy through a meet like this."
Next up the 200m medley, a 1:57.26 semi granting a return to the fray with teammate Ryan Lochte (1:56.74), another phenomenal showdown in prospect, just as the 200m freestyle winner coaches by Gregg Troy in Florida had promised on the eve of racing.
On a night when Sun Yang got past Grant Hackett on the 800m clock and Federica Pellegrini raced deeper into pioneering waters as the queen of 200m racing, a 1:55.58 effort making her the first woman ever to retain the title, history beckons for the "Port Maquarie Missile", as Aussie outlets are calling James Magnussen.
He swam 47.90sec in the first semi of the 100m free and, with a 47.49 under his belt from the gold-panning 4x100m free relay last Sunday, enters his first solo world-title bout a confident man.
A tip from the brain behind the braun of Phelps, Bob Bowman: "The process is the thing to focus all your energy on. There's no point in training your focus on the gold medal if you don't know what that means. You can't control what others do. A good example is American football. You don't win the game by saying 'I gotta score 14 points'. It is about executing each play, moving from one play to the next play, the focus on getting each step as right as you can, doing each thing to the best of your ability. It's the same in swimming. That gives you the outcome you want and then the medals come."
The 20-year-old Magnussen put clear blue water between himself and Phelps, on a cracking 48.08 leading off the US relay, when he set the fastest time ever swum by a man in textile race apparel to set up a showdown with defending champion Cesar Cielo (BRA) a year out from the London 2012 Olympic Games.
"I'm very happy that I am a little bit fast again. It's good. The biggest thing is to be patient - it's practice for the Olympic Games," Magnussen said as he heads for a race from which he could emerge as the first Australian in history to win the world crown and the first in world or Olympic waters to come out on top of a there-and-back battle on freestyle since Mike Wenden took gold in Mexico, 1968.
Meanwhile, Lochte and Phelps intend to repeat their US 1-2 from Tuesday in the 200m freestyle when they race the 200m medley tomorrow, Bowman believing that the sight of the Olympic champion digging deep and coming good in his signature event indicated that he was capable of reversing the order of things with Lochte on medley.
Two things pleased Bowman most tonight: "The way he finished. Just digging in and when he did dig in there was something there. The double [backing up the 'fly with a medley qualification] was really good. That he could come in and back up like that."
Turning the corner in training, which was as it always was "but the volume is not … we're going to change that", and events in Shanghai had had a positive effect on Phelps. "Mentally and physically he's better - he is definitely physiologically better. We've been doing his lactate and its back to normal, like the old Michael."
Cue shivers all round.
Meanwhile, at the half-way point of the championships, the race pool medals table features 17 nations and the helm looks like this: