Can Olympic champion Phelps continue where he left off?

No - but that is by his own choice as, unlike the Beijing Olympics, where he became the most successful Olympian of all times by winning eight gold medals and taking his personal tally to 14 Olympic gold and two bronze, Phelps has dropped two swims.

His decision not to swim the 400 metre and 200m individual medley in Rome at the July 17 - August 2 FINA World Swimming Championships will have come as a welcome bonus to his rivals like Ryan Lochte, but he will still go into the water as favourite for his six other swims.

The Baltimore-born swimmer, who returned to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club from Club Wolverine at the University of Michigan and teamed up with coach Bob Bowman after last year’s Olympics, will be swimming in the 200m freestyle and the 100m and 200m butterfly, as well as the three relays.

He could well already find himself under pressure on the first day of the swimming competition, which begins on Sunday, as the French 4x100m freestyle team, who narrowly missed out on a gold medal in Beijing, are expected to push the US team metre for metre.

Although Phelps broke his own 100m butterfly world record in Indianapolis, he is expected to face tough opposition from Serbian Milorad Cavic, whom he beat by just one hundredth of a second in Beijing, while Hungarian Laszlo Cseh is expected to do well in the 200m butterfly.

Another thing that could stop Phelps from adding six gold medals to the 17 he already has from the world championships is his swimsuit.

At the US trials in Indianapolis a few weeks ago Phelps did not want to speak about swimsuits. “I am here to swim and not to have discussions about swimsuits,” he brushed journalists off when asked about the new high-tech swimsuits.

Last year in Beijing, Phelps swam in a Speedo LZR Racer, which at the time was the best and fastest there was as its polyurethane panels gave it a huge advantage over all other suits.

Since then, other manufacturers have managed to produce even faster suits made entirely out of polyurethane and this has allowed a whole array of swimmers to post impressive times, while others like Australian Andrew Lauterstein, who finished third in Beijing behind Phelps and Cavic in the 100m butterfly, ditched the Speedo suit for a rival brand.

Phelps lost his American short course 400m IM record to newcomer Tyler Clary and Phelps could be hard pushed by several swimmers wearing swimsuits from other companies.

German 200m freestyle swimmer Paul Biedermann, whose time of 1:44.71 came close to Phelps’ time at the US Championships in Indianapolis, however cautions against thinking Phelps will be beaten easily.

“His world record is still nearly one and a half seconds faster. I think he can better the time he swam in Indianapolis.”

For many the fact that Phelps will be competing in Rome at all comes as a surprise.
Many of his teammates decided to take time-out after Beijing and Phelps has only just returned from a three-month suspension imposed by USA Swimming after pictures of him using a bong, which is used for smoking marijuana, were published in an English newspaper.

Rome could well be simply a stepping stone towards Phelps’ ultimate goal: London 2012, where he is hoping to add to his glittering Olympic career.

For US swimming coach Mark Schubert Phelps’ presence in Rome is very important though. “I hope that he remains motivated. His presence alone creates a totally different atmosphere and feeling amongst the fans and that is good for swimming.”

The 24-year-old said that he was eager to see the competition start.

On his Facebook page Phelps wrote Tuesday: “I’m in Riccione now with the U.S. national team for training camp. I'm excited to be part of the team and looking forward to the world champs starting on Sunday in Rome.”

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