Michael Phelps pulled away in the final lap of the 200-meter butterfly final Wednesday night to capture his first gold medal at the swimming world championships here and send a message that his prowess remains.
After finishing third in the 400 freestyle relay and second in the 200 freestyle, Phelps delivered in his signature event, edging Takeshi Matsuda of Japan in the last 50 meters to win with a time of 1 minute 53.34 seconds, about seven-tenths of a second ahead of Matsuda.
Phelps, who had his streak in championship races broken at 34 earlier in the year by Wu Peng, extended his unbeaten streak in international finals to nine. And in what is the last major international competition before next summer’s London Olympics, it may be a sign that the world’s most accomplished swimmer has returned to form.
“I’m super happy with going faster than I did last year,” Phelps said after the race. “But this is just a small step for my next year.”
The last time Phelps competed in China was the 2008 Olympics, when he won a record eight gold medals. At the 2009 world championships, in Rome, he grabbed another five golds, and one silver, at an event that was overshadowed by a debate over swimsuit technology. In Rome, 43 world records were set. So far at these world championships, where rules requiring traditional textile suits are in place, no records have been broken.
Phelps, 26, shot to an early lead in the first 50 meters Wednesday, but Matsuda — for years a strong challenger — pulled even near the halfway mark and going into the final lap, with China’s Wu trailing in third place. After the race, Phelps said he anticipated a close finish.
“I knew it was going to be a grueling last 50,” he said, referring to Matsuda. “The race was going to come down to the last 50. And heading into tonight I had kind of decided he was going to be the toughest one.”
Phelps’s gold medal, the first of this competition, comes after a slow start. He was part of the United States relay team that failed to defend its title Sunday in the 400 freestyle. The United States finished third behind Australia and France.
The United States team had not lost a relay of any type since 2007.
Phelps also narrowly lost the 200-meter freestyle final to his longtime friend and teammate Ryan Lochte on Tuesday. Lochte pulled ahead in the final lap to win in a time of 1:44.44. Phelps took the silver at 1:44.79 and the world-record holder Paul Biedermann of Germany won the bronze.
Asked why there was no big celebration when he captured his first gold Wednesday, Phelps said he needs to stay focused and learn to conserve his strength for the races.
“I have to curtail my emotional energy,” he said. “Controlling emotional energy is really big.”
These world championships are perhaps the strongest sign yet that Phelps and Lochte are perhaps now the world’s two best swimmers; so far, the 26-year Lochte may even have an edge.
In the semifinal of the 200-meter individual medley Wednesday night, Lochte and Phelps pulled away from the field, with Lochte winning in a time of 1:56.74. Lochte is the world record holder in the event, and Thursday’s final is expected to be a tough duel.
The United States swimming team has had a subpar performance so far at these world championships, winning 5 gold medals and 19 overall medals.
But China, the host country, has been impressive. The Chinese swept the diving gold medals, winning all 10, and have 29 overall medals in the competition. One of the bright spots for China came shortly after Phelps won Wednesday when 19-year-old Sun Yang crushed the field to win his first world title and a gold medal in the men’s final of the 800-meter freestyle.
On Monday 15-year-old Ye Shiwen won China’s first swimming gold medal in the women’s 200-meter individual medley.