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Rock steady after stunning Phelps

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Ollie Williams | 17:29 UK time, Saturday, 19 December 2009

If you are a 22-year-old British swimmer with an unspectacular record after one Olympic appearance, and unknown outside the sport, you could not script a better way to announce yourself to the public.

Liverpudlian Michael Rock picked a head-to-head clash between Europe and the United States, shown live on BBC One, to demolish living legend Michael Phelps in front of the nation.

Duel in the Pool has been the first event of its kind in Britain and, according to a delighted Rock, the format could spur British swimmers on to greater things.

British swimmer Michael Rock'It'd be fantastic to beat Phelps at London 2012' - Michael Rock

When I spoke to him afterwards, the flame-haired law student told me the atmosphere at the Manchester pool had spurred him to victory.

The Manchester Aquatics Centre has been bathed in a feast of light and sound for the two-day competition, and the sell-out crowd rocked out as Rock romped home - a noise he could hear as he made his final turn in the men's 200m butterfly.

"The crowd got me through," he said. "The atmosphere was electric, they were right behind me every stroke I took in those last two lengths.

"All that was going through my head was how many kicks I need to do and my stroke count, to try to finish the race strongly on a full stroke. You have to take your mind out of it.

"Even then, you can just about hear the deafening roar of the crowd in the background through your cap, and that gets you through - but you have to keep your mind on what you need to do in the water."

Rock, who would have liked to be a pianist had his swimming not reached these heights and calls John Lennon his idol, felt no pressure as he lined up alongside Phelps, with Europe already out of the running and only pride at stake.

And the 24-year-old American master of swimming, owner of 14 Olympic gold medals, looked like he was wearing the lot as Rock won the race by more than a second.

That probably owes a lot to Phelps' decision to wear a textile swimsuit, which will be legal under 2010 rules, as opposed to Rock's 2009 swimsuit, which is 100% polyurethane and will be banned from January.

Duel in the Pool was Rock's last chance to wear the ultra-fast 2009 suit, and he took full advantage to outpace Phelps, who insisted on sporting the 2010 outfit throughout the competition.

Rock is unrepentant about the decision to harness the technology available to him - as did many other swimmers, including fellow Briton Fran Halsall, who won three events at the duel.

"I'll take any victory against Michael Phelps," said Rock. "This victory has to be taken as a mid-season thing - forgetting the suit issue, we're both in heavy training at the moment and this event is not our focus. I'm very much working towards the Commonwealth Games next year.

"I was racing in a suit which will not be legal next year but it is legal now and, as an athlete, you just try to get the best out of yourself and look for all the advantages, not just looking at the suits, every day in training when you improve on your performance.

"The great thing about next year," he added, referring to January's ban on the 2009 models, "is this won't cloud the issue. It'll just be the best athlete who will win the day, and that will be a great thing."

The immediate question which springs to mind is whether Rock would ever be able to replicate the feat if he and Phelps lined up in identical suits. When I put that to Rock's European team-mate Liam Tancock, himself a world champion in backstroke, the Devonian said Rock could win again.

"I don't see why not," said Tancock, who took third place in the men's 100m backstroke on Saturday. "There's a bit of difference in the suits and that comes down to Fina (the sport's governing body), but all we can do is race the best we can.

"Michael stood up tonight and raced hard, and came away with the victory. He touched the wall first, well done him, great job for Europe. Who knows what can happen next year. Michael's got a boost before Christmas, there's a lot of hard work to go, and he's shown Phelps is beatable."

Rock, as you may imagine, found it hard to shift a winning smile from his face as he looked back on his day's work.

"It's the first time I've beaten Michael Phelps," he said, in case that needed clarifying. "It doesn't happen every day. I've got the utmost respect for what he's achieved, he's a great athlete, a great competitor, and somehow I beat him today. I can't quite believe it. I spoke to him afterwards and he offered his congratulations.

"I just hope we have more of these events because it really gives us a mid-season lift," he added, playing down the 185-78 scoreline with which the US won the event, despite his efforts.

"We had a fantastic European team and the margin of victory is testament to America's dominance in the sport right now. They've got great athletes, let's face it. These three nations came together and achieved great personal performances, it's just America is such a great nation, they won the day."

As the temporary seats around the pool are dismantled and swimming disappears from the nation's screens, so Rock will probably find he fades from view. But he knows that is coming, and is ready to knuckle down for three more years.

"On Monday morning I'll be back doing six or seven kilometres, when it's cold at six in the morning. I need to get grounded, back down to earth, and work towards British trials in April.

"It's a funny time of year that this meet came, we're all in very hard training with the focus being the Commonwealths next year. Any performances achieved here are only a positive step, and I'm very much looking forward to the future.

"It'd be fantastic to beat Phelps at London 2012 but I need to put in a lot of hard training before then."


  • Comment number 1.

    Another victory to put an asterix beside.

    This is a nothing victory because of the suits and i cant believe that any sort of deal was made out of this result.

    He will be a nothing when the suits are equal once more

  • Comment number 2.

    Meaningless. I think he should be a bit embarrassed about 'winning' in such a false way

  • Comment number 3.

    "The immediate question which springs to mind is whether Rock would ever be able to replicate the feat if he and Phelps lined up in identical suits."

    The immediate answer that springs to mind is no chance whatsoever. Tancock thinks he can do it - but then again Tancock managed to fool casual observers into believing that he was a credible rival for the American backstrokers.

  • Comment number 4.

    No Asterix required. Surely you are not implying Mr. Rock gained an advantage by imbibing Getafix's finest?

  • Comment number 5.

    It's all a bit of a plava isn't it? Phelps seems to have had a bit of a sulk this year because his sponsor, who obviously pays him quite a bit of money and so locked into a contract doesn't have the ingenuity to design an equally good suit?!?

    If I was Rock I'd take any good fortune that comes my way suit or no suit. Who cares about the suit and the advantage it gives the fact is a Scouse law student beat the guy who's being called the greatest swimmer ever and clearly doesn't have the experience n benefits Phelps does.

    Given how pourly our swimmers perfromed in Sydney and Athens, we've taken giant strides in Beijing and since.

  • Comment number 6.

    I think it was more Phelps' coach who had the sulk; he didn't really say anything. Deciding to wear the jammers is a reasonable decision in light of the rule-changes.

    Scouse law student is a bit of a mis-leading description for a generously funded student athlete and Olympian based at Stockport ITC. And British swimmers can probably do as well out of central funding as any nation; Phelps, I don't think has got anything from the US.

  • Comment number 7.

    I think this says all we need to know about SOME British swimmers. Rather than look to the future and winning meaningful titles, they target hollow victories in unimportant meets, and in Rock's case just to be able to tell the grandkids that he beat Phelps, once.

    I expected more from Fran Halsall though...

  • Comment number 8.

    Total nonsense. Once the suits are equal this guy won't even register. Phelps is being smart by trying to adapt to conditions he's going to face in actual competition. He is clearly aware that this "duel" is worth nothing and is concentrating his efforts on replicating competitive conditions for next year. Embarrassing story.

  • Comment number 9.

    I don't see why everyone is being so negative towards Michael Rock. Suit or no suit, the guy just beat the best in the world, and he deserves credit for that.
    Even though the full suits are a huge boost in the pool, the main factor in this event is that very few of these swimmers prepared solely for this event. At least 90% are in heavy training, which affects race perfomance in a way that a suit most certainly cant.
    While the suit debate will carry on, and people will rubbish this victory in that lovely armchair sportsman kind of way, at the end of the day, the athlete who prepared better for this event won.
    Congratulations Michael Rock.

  • Comment number 10.

    Felixtzu - Interesting point about Liam Tancock. When I spoke to him afterwards he was pleased with his swim and, throughout, has been keen to point out the competition is not his focus and he's in hard training. However, he was soundly beaten by his US rivals, who would say similar things.

    Jules - Very good. Are you questioning Rock's Vitalstatistix?

  • Comment number 11.

    Who is the new guy? and where is he from?.

  • Comment number 12.

    Dear oh dear, give the lad a break! Nowhere in his interview did he make any outrageous claims or overplay the significance of the win.

    'I'll take any victory against Michael Phelps," said Rock. "This victory has to be taken as a mid-season thing - forgetting the suit issue, we're both in heavy training at the moment and this event is not our focus. I'm very much working towards the Commonwealth Games next year.'

    Let him enjoy his victory, and go have a cup of tea if it makes you that angry.

  • Comment number 13.

    Oh-dear, a case of the "Emperor's New Clothers." Strap an outboard motor to my derrière and I'd probably beat Phelps too! I could say it doesn't matter, but it actually MATTERS a great deal b/c Phelps and his coach are the ones with the advantage going into next year. Everyone knows how Phelps uses such things as motivation, think about all the motivation these "losses" are giving him and the false confidence his competitors are receiving! "If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose...If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself." It's going to be ugly next year when the new laws take effect and Phelps is back competing.

  • Comment number 14.

    I'll beat Chris Hoy on a bike, providing mines a kawasaki. This is the same thing.

  • Comment number 15.

    Ollie, was Tancock not one of the swimmers supposedly racing in 2010 jammers this weekend? I thought I heard that he was; then he turns-up suited, and still gets well beaten. He might try to play on the heavy training thing, but as you say, the rivals weren't peaking for this either, and besides, the other Ben Titley coached swimmers were Europe's stars.

    On your last blog some observers took exception to my pointing-out that no British man would be likely to make a US championship team, and cited Tancock as one who would. Thoman, who set the 100back WR on friday is a swimmer who has posted world class times in the last couple of years, certainly better than Tancock, but never made a US championship team. After all, Peirsol and Grevers are the Olympic gold and silver medalists.

    Tancock is a world champion, but in a non-Olympic event in a post-Olympic year; one which a lot of countries, including Britain and USA don't even select for. I'd be wary interviewing him in future and take anything he says with a pinch of salt, as he seems to continually twist the facts in an arrogant and self-aggrandizing manner. In his interview with Steve Parry he had the audacity to talk of his 'rivalry' with Peirsol, and claimed to have got the better of him in Rome. Peirsol hadn't lost a major 100back race to anyone for a long time, let alone Tancock, but messed-up his semi-final and didn't make the final - hardly a case of getting the better of a rival.

    Talk is cheap, but in the end you just put more pressure on yourself. High expectations in 2012 could be a heavy weight, and the real chances of reaching that podium are very slim.

  • Comment number 16.

    FranMerida....u expected more of fran halsall?

    she did 5 races, the most out of any european athlete.
    shes 19 years old and won 3 out of her 4 individual races,against all of the best american female swimmers, setting 3 british records, and 2 european records, lets not forget nearly breaking 2 world records in the 50m and 100m freestyle.

    you must have pretty high expectations. and as for targetting this meet, no one was targeting it,american and europeans alike. But if you are picked to represent Europe or USA, you swim to the best of your ability, and thats what they did.

  • Comment number 17.

    Good suit that.

  • Comment number 18.

    Not a lot of love for Rock here, is there? Hopefully he'll prove people wrong when the suits are (quite ridiculously) banned, but I won't hold my breath.

  • Comment number 19.

    I have no idea why everyone is on rocks back.
    phelps could have worn one of the so call 'fast suits'if he had chosen too, as after all the lzr racer which we wore in beijing to win all his golds is being banned in jan too.
    rock swam a good race and won, rock was just happy to have won the race- as that was what the meet was all about a 'duel' in the pool.
    No one has clamed that rock is a better swimmer than phelps or tryed to take away the fact that phelps is the greatest swimmer ever.
    i just makes me laugh how if a british swimmer loses or swims below the expected result everone gets on their back- and now it also seems that if one of us wins people seem to be as equally negative. its a joke!
    As for the comment about liam- he is one of the nicest guys i know, im guessing that you have never met him face to face, if you had you would see that he is NOT arrogant at all, and he did 'take him down' in the 50 breaking the WR in the process.
    with 2012 around the corner it would be nice for all british swimmers to feel the public are behind us and not lining up to take cheep shots.

  • Comment number 20.

    it means nothing. it's absolutely pointless. phelps in an equal suit would've had the pace. fair play to him for condemning the suits.

  • Comment number 21.

    Major credit to Phelps, ready to take a defeat to better prepare himself for the future. That's what makes him an Olympic champion rather than a one race wonder.

  • Comment number 22.

    How typical of Britain.

    Shoot a british winner down as always.

    None of you people shoot down footballers who have better trainingvfacilities, better equipment etc. "They deserve to win" is the thining there.

    Stop being so British and celebrate a winner for once in your lives!!! Correction, not the British, I meant the English!

  • Comment number 23.


    Are you Cassie Patten? I ask based on you use of 'us' for British swimmers, and saying Tancock is one of the nicest people you know.

    If so, congratulations on all your achievements. It would be understandable for you to be sensitive to the perceived demeaning of a club-mate, at what should be a proud moment for him. If you look through the comments again though, you'll see the criticisms are generally of the tone of the article, not of Rock himself.

    You complain about people criticizing British swimmers when they don't win. In that case you surely shouldn't want expectations to be too high? It was a good swim from Rock, but would be a lazy extrapolation to read too much into it just because Phelps was in the pool. If he had swum sub-1.50 we'd have reason to get very excited, but I don't think he even swum his best time; and after Joe Roebuck's British record last weekend, he's not even the top Brit in the event at the moment. Given all this, calls for perspective and realism shouldn't be taken as insults for Michael Rock.

    And sorry, but I have to stick by what I said about Tancock. Everyone speaks well of their own friends.

  • Comment number 24.

    Hang about Felix, I'm not sure many of the above comments are focused on the tone of the article, as opposed to Rock.

    What made Rock's race worthy of attention is the fact that, even wearing a 2009 suit versus Phelps in a 2010 model, I don't think anybody was expecting Rock to win. On being told a British swimmer has beaten Michael Phelps in the pool, most people are likely to want to hear more - particularly in this instance, where there is more to the victory than meets the casual observer's eye.

    One of the aims of this post is to set out the circumstances in which Rock won, and what he made of those circumstances. But, given his is a name few people outside swimming will know, it is also to introduce him and flesh out a little about his character.

    Nowhere, as Cassie says and for the reasons you lay out, does anyone claim Rock is therefore now the better swimmer (as is palpably not the case), or "read too much into it" beyond saying he did well to pick a widely-publicised meet in which to beat Phelps.

  • Comment number 25.

    felixtzu, Liam doesn't have to fool anyone into thinking he's a rival for the US backstrokers, because he quite clearly is. He, like the Americans, has the goal of winning major events; therefore, any fellow competitor with the same ambition is considered a rival, ragardless of their dominance in that event previously. The very fact Liam has come close in recent years, most notably 3rd in Melbourne, makes him a worthy competitor and you questioning his 'audacity' to do so is quite disrespectful of what he has accomplished.

    Irrespective of Liams achievements, what gives you the right to question his character and suggest he is of an arrogant and self-aggrandising nature? I am eager to know, are you in a position where you know him personally and can pass such judgement, or are you merely going on short, edited, pre/post-race interviews, the intention of which is to increase public interest and the profile of the sport? Pretty hard to do if Liam sits there and says "I don't have a chance this meet, don't know why I'm here", don't you think? Obviously you must know him, because it would be naive to go by the latter.

    Coincidently, I am fortunate enough to have met Liam, and spoken with him to an extent where I am convinced he is a genuine and decent guy. I can also pass judgement on how hard he works to meet his ambitions, and hope that he achieves the success he deserves. Remember he is trying to be a successful athlete for personal achievement, and should be treated as such.

    Whilst your responses are well structured felixtzu, they also seem to be quite confusing. It's hard to pin-point just exactly where your frustrations with the topic and comments lie. The bitterness you display seems to be more directed towards individuals such as Michael Rock and Liam Tancock, but you also highlight areas of weakness in swimming disciplines in this country. Are you frustrated with the individual athletes? The system? The occasional ignorance of multi-sport journalists covering swimming? Are you a swimnews nerd/snob? I would be interested to hear your opinions on why we are lacking in performance so much in this country. Obviously it comes down to more than just the athletes you mention.

    Also, if you don't mind, what's your position within the swimming community? You seem fairly knowledgeable about the sport, I just want to gauge where you might be coming from, before I pass judgement. All I've established so far, is that you're particularly cynical towards British Athletes.

  • Comment number 26.

    To be honest Felixtzu you asked the question previously "which British Men would qualify for the US World Championsips team" and people said Liam Tancock because, as a matter of fact, he would of. Dipping slightly under 54. would of got a male into the US Team for 100m Back at US trials, a time Tancock comfortably posted this year.

    As for Rocky, at the end of the day, in a duel meet, he went head to head with Phelps and beat him, it was a nice bonus for a lad who probably saw the great man as absolutely untouchable particularly in the 200m Fly. But it was pretty clear he hasn't let it go to his head, and everyone knows that Phelps response to the 2009 swimming year when he starts to come out of hard training is going to be absolutely frightening (something I can't wait for). But let's not chastise the guy for winning, he set himself a task for the meet and met it. Well done to him.

    You're cynicism towards British Swimmers on the back of a much improved 2 years for the Team is extremely unfortunate, especially as a talented squad make real strides towards, hopefully, an outstanding meet at London 2012.

  • Comment number 27.

    OK, so Rock was wearing the 2009 suit, and Phelps wasn't! But Rock won and not by the skin of his teeth either. Phelps swam in his 2009 suit for the whole competition, and whilst he didn't win everything he wasn't beaten in every race, despite wearing a slower suit! I think the timing of the event and the stage of their training probably had a bit more to do with it than anything else.

    Therefore give Rock some credit and let him enjoy his moment and let's bring on 2010 and some exciting racing without the suit debate to muddy the waters!

  • Comment number 28.

    Fair enough Ollie, the race did catch the attention of everyone; although perhaps shouldn't have been too great a surprise given that he also beat Phelps a few weeks ago, and swum faster then.

    Gesus, I'm sorry my lack of written articulation erroneously suggested frustration with the swimmers. Michael Rock is a great swimmer, a good fella, and I wish him all the best. Personally I was just concerned with expectation management. Given the attitude to British athletes spoken of by Cassie, the last thing Rock needs is to turn up to World and have people say: "here comes the guy who smashed Phelps at duel" ... "hang on, why's he finishing 4 seconds behind; what a choker!" I think I'll hang to anonymity here (in case Cassie Patten comes after me); although I like the suggestion: "Are you a swimnews nerd/snob?" Is there more than one? Not Craig Lord, and no objection to multi-sport journos covering swimming.

  • Comment number 29.

    felixtu im not going to come ater, im in heavy training and need to reserve my energy.
    Every one is allowed their own opinion, i just feel strongly that rocky is a good swimmer and doesnt desurve the stick he's been gettin on here, plus i only come after people who pull my leg in races!

  • Comment number 30.

    Good to know! Ilchenko herself was it? Be careful, they breed them tough out there!

    Good luck with the training. I hope Michael doesn't think people aren't behind him.

  • Comment number 31.

    It's a late comment but I think all those who seem to be putting rocky down should understand that rocky is a student compared to phelps who is just full time swimmer. I swim and go to uni no way near the levels that rocky does and I know that spending up to 4-5 hours intensive training a day whilst trying to make deadlines is extremly hard and the fact that he can even get close to phelps is incredible. You wouldn't expect a part time football team to beat Man Utd.

    When it comes to the suit he didn't break any rules and those who say it wasn't help longterm then this gala was a bit of fun whilst in intensive training.

    Rocky is a good lad and I'm confident he'll prove that even now suits are gone

  • Comment number 32.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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