ROME - Michael Phelps was sitting in the stands. It didn't matter, not at the fastest show on water.
Seven more world records on the fifth night of the world swimming championships pushed the total to 29, sending Rome right on past last summer's Beijing Olympics that were thought to be the limit of speed in the pool. The Water Cube has been left in the dust - and there's still three more days of competition at the Foro Italico.
With Phelps cheering him on, American Ryan Lochte got things rolling by breaking Phelps' mark in the 200-metre individual medley. The Chinese women finished it off, eclipsing the 800 freestyle relay mark by more than two seconds, with the Americans also breaking the previous record but only getting silver.
How fast were they swimming in those high-tech suits that soon will be banned by FINA?
More than half of the 13 races held Thursday night, including semifinals and finals, produced world records. They were falling so fast, the crowd barely had time to cheer before another mark dropped.
"I think it's only been two or three races that haven't had a world record," said Australia's Jess Schipper, who got in on the fun by taking down the old standard in the 200 butterfly.
So, is that a good thing? Or does it lessen the accomplishment when just about everyone is going faster than ever before?
"It's hard to say," Schipper said. "It's been a very exciting meet. It's been very fast. But we all knew it was going to be fast coming in here, so nobody can say that they didn't expect this. I think that the world records, while they may have been helped with the suits, it still has a lot to do with the swimmer and the work you've put in."
Vancouver's Annamay Pierse was among those to get in on the act by setting a new standard in the women's 200 breaststroke semifinals. Her time of two minutes 20.12 seconds edged American Rebecca Soni - the women she'll go head-to-head with in Friday's final.
The swimmers are enjoying the ride, knowing this might be as fast as they'll ever swim and have it count. Some of these records could stand for years, even decades, if FINA follows through on its plan to ban bodysuits in 2010 and ensure that next-generation attire is made from textile fabrics instead of buoyant materials such as polyurethane.
Soaking up some rays on the sunny side of the stadium, a bare-chested Phelps joined in the celebration when Lochte touched in one minute 54.10 seconds. That broke Phelps' gold-medal time of 1:54.23 from Beijing.
And Lochte did it wearing the year-old Speedo LZR Racer, just as Phelps was the previous night when he broke his own world record in the 200 butterfly.
"Everyone is complaining about all these new suits, blah blah blah, and I go out there and wear the same suit that's been out there and I just give it to them," Lochte said.
Lochte would have liked Phelps in the water, not the stands. Phelps actually had an entire day off, the result of a reduced schedule in Rome. Not quite as fit as he was last year, he dropped both the 200 and 400 individual medley from his program.
"It feels good to do that (world record), but at the same time I wish he was doing it," Lochte said. "I love a challenge. And I love racing against him, because he is one of the best swimmers ever. Anytime I can race against him, I would be more than happy to."