The longest layoff of Michael Phelps's career doesn't appear to have dimmed the swimming superstar's status as a gold-plated favorite heading into the World Championships later this month.
Overall, however, the perennially strong United States team will have weaknesses to overcome on both the men's and women's sides. Phelps punched his ticket to Rome in the 100m and 200m butterfly and 200m freestyle.
His 100m butterfly victory in 50.22sec delivered a world record he had long coveted - and missed out on despite making it one of his eight victories at the Beijing Olympics. Phelps won't get a chance to try out his new 100m freestyle technique in Rome, after pulling out of the event at the US trials that ended Saturday with a stiff neck.
But coach Bob Bowman said that Phelps, in fact, wouldn't have swum in the 100m free in Rome anyway, preferring to focus on the 200m fly - an event in which Phelps has indicated he has "unfinished business." Phelps will almost certainly swim three relays, giving him six events as he bids to add to a collection that includes 15 world titles and 14 Olympic gold medals.
"He needs just a tiny bit of training the next couple days to help him finish his 200s better, then he'll just taper," Bowman said of Phelps's preparation for the swimming competition that starts in Rome on July 26. "He'll be ready to go."
Also ready are Aaron Peirsol, who notched world records in the 100m and 200m backstroke, Ryan Lochte, the world number one in the 400m individual medley since Phelps has turned his attention from that event. Nathan Adrian, winner of the 50m and 100m free at the trials and breaststroker Eric Shanteauau are other key elements of the men's team.
But Bowman, who will also serve as the head coach of the US men's team, said that the Americans don't look as strong as the men who swept all before them at the 2007 World Championships. "The 2007 world team was our best ever, and I don't think we're there," Bowman said. "We'll have a lot to prove at this meet."
One of those tests will come in the 4x100 freestyle relay. The United States won it in Beijing, led off by Phelps and anchored by Jason Lezak, who won't be in Rome. The depleted Americans will be hard pressed against France, which boasts five of the eight fastest 100m free swimmers this year.
"I think we're going to be challenged," said US team chief Mark Schubert. "I don't think we're going to go into that relay as favorites, but I think we're going to be very, very tough contenders."
Dara Torres, 42, is the marquee name on the women's side, with Natalie Coughlin taking time off after the Beijing Games and struggling Katie Hoff failing to qualify. Torres, battling a sore left knee, is qualified only to swim the 50m free and relays.
Otherwise the women's team is a mix of proven champions like Olympic 200m breaststroke gold medallist Rebecca Soni and youngsters such as Elizabeth Beisel and Elizabeth Pelton. Beisel is a veteran of international competition at 16, while 15-year-old Pelton has booked three individual events in her first trip to the World Championships.
Like Bowman, Schubert said it would be difficult for the US to match its medal tally from the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, where America won 20 gold, 13 silver and three bronze medals.
But he said in the post-Olympic year, as opposed to a pre-Olympic season, that was acceptable. "This is more of a building year for us," Schubert said. "My view of the team is that if we can approach that in 2011, that's where we really want to have the benchmark. This is more of a developmental meet for us."
Like the rest of the world, the US will wrestle with the question of the controversial polyurethane-based super suits that have whipped up controversy in the sport.
"They do make a difference," Bowman said as the US trials concluded. "It is what it is. I think we had a great meet here. People broke world records in a (non-polyurethane) LZR, people broke world records in other suits. I think it gets down to the racing and who is prepared."