From left, Aaron Piersol, Eric Shanteau Michael Phelps and David Walters of the United States show their gold medals for winning the men’s 400-meter medley relay at the FINA Swimming World Championships in Rome on Sunday.AP PHOTO
ROME — Michael Phelps and the U.S. 400-meter medley relay team closed the fastest meet in swimming history with an appropriate finish Sunday night — the 43rd world record.
Phelps earned his fifth gold medal of a world championships that showed he’s still got plenty of motivation, even after winning a record eight times at the Beijing Olympics.
Swimming the butterfly leg, Phelps helped the U.S. pull away from Germany and Australia to win in 3 minutes, 27.28 seconds. That easily broke the mark of 3:29.34 set by the Americans at last summer’s Olympics.
“That relay brings out the best in me,” Phelps said. “That’s sort of what competing does. It doesn’t matter how much energy I have, it’s all going to go into every race. That’s one of the things that I enjoy most — stepping out onto the blocks no matter what kind of shape I’m in.”
Phelps took six months off after his Beijing triumph, received a three-month suspension from competition after that infamous marijuana pipe photo came out — and he was still named the most outstanding male swimmer of the championships. Italy’s Federica Pellegrini received the female award.
“I have more things I want to do,” Phelps said. “That’s why I wanted to come back. I don’t care if anyone says it was a bad idea or not, it’s something that I wanted and that’s why I’m doing it.”
His coach, Bob Bowman, said Phelps will get all of two weeks off before he’s back in the pool.
On to London in 2012.
“I’ve got to be in better shape,” Phelps said. “That’s the biggest thing. I’ve got to get my body back in better shape. I think without taking six months off, that will do it.”
Eric Shanteau, who overcame testicular cancer to swim his best times, picked up the first major gold medal of his career on the breaststroke leg of the relay, to go along with a silver and bronze in Rome. The other members of the winning team were backstroker Aaron Peirsol and David Walters, swimming the freestyle anchor.
Shanteau was thrilled to finally step on the top rung of the podium, especially after what he went through last summer, learning just before the U.S. Olympic trials that he had cancer. He put off treatment until after the games, underwent surgery when he got home and has been cancer-free since.
“What a great way to end it,” said Shanteau, who had missed an individual gold by one-hundredth of a second in the 200 breaststroke. “To finally get it, that gold medal, was an unbelievable feeling.”
Also Sunday, Ryan Lochte won his fourth gold of the championships and Germany’s Britta Steffen matched her 50-100 freestyle sweep in Beijing.
No such glory for 42-year-old Dara Torres. The senior citizen of the pool finished last in her only individual final at the Foro Italico.
“I like to win, but eighth fastest in the world at 42, so I can’t be too disappointed,” she said.
Taking advantage of Phelps’ absence, Lochte added the 400 individual medley title to his medal haul at the championships. Lochte also won the 200 IM along with two relay golds, in addition to taking bronze in the 200 backstroke.
Lochte was far off Phelps’ world record in the 400 IM, touching first in 4:07.01. Phelps won gold at Beijing in 4:03.84, but decided to scale back his program heading into what will be his final Olympics.
“It definitely felt good to get these wins after coming second to Michael for so long,” said Lochte, who broke Phelps’ world record in the 200 IM with his rival cheering from the stands. “But I wish he was here swimming just because he’s a great competitor and I love racing him. I’m trying to talk him into doing the IM again.”
The Americans still went 1-2 even without Phelps. Tyler Clary came on strong in the freestyle to beat Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh, taking silver in 4:07.31. Cseh settled for bronze at 4:07.37.
Both were closing fast when Lochte touched.
“I didn’t think it was going to hurt that much,” the winner said. “When I touched going into the freestyle, I just had a body-length lead and I just thought, ‘If this hurts too bad, I’ll lose it.’ Then, you know, I just gave it everything I had. That’s all I could ask for it.”
The win gave Lochte another chance to break out his diamond-studded “grillz,” which he popped in his mouth while posing for photographers after the medal ceremony.
Steffen was one of the biggest female stars in Rome. She set her third world record of the meet while winning the 50 free in 23.73.
The German repeated her Olympic feat in a blistering race, beating the mark of 23.96 held by Marleen Veldhuis of the Netherlands since April. Sweden’s Therese Alshammar went under the old record as well, settling for silver (23.88). Australian teenager Cate Campbell got bronze.
Torres failed to match her silver-medal showing from the Olympics, when she finished just one-hundredth of a second behind Steffen. Bothered by a sore knee that will require surgery, the American was eighth in 24.48.
But she’s not retiring, saying she plans to return to the pool in December.
She hasn’t ruled out anything, not even trying to swim in the next Olympics at 45.
Tunisia’s Ous Mellouli matched his Olympic gold by winning again in the 1,500 free, the longest event in the pool. After a tight battle over the first 1,000 meters with Canada’s Ryan Cochrane, Mellouli steadily pulled away to win in 14:37.28, though short of Grant Hackett’s 8-year-old world record of 14:34.56.