Michael Phelps was jolted by a rare defeat and reminded of the work that lies ahead after he finished second to Aaron Peirsol in the 100 metres backstroke at the Charlotte Grand Prix on Saturday.
Phelps, on only his second day of competition since his record eight gold medal haul at the Beijing Olympics, was well beaten to the wall, his time of 53.79 a far cry from Peirsol's 53.32.
The loss was the 23-year-old American's first in a final in almost exactly a year, and his conqueror the same man. It was compatriot Peirsol who beat Phelps in the 200m backstroke at the Santa Carla Grand Prix on May 17.
"I don't like to lose and Aaron has the upper hand in our races right now," Phelps told reporters.
After sweeping the 200m freestyle and 100m butterfly on Friday -- events he won in Beijing -- Phelps stepped out of his comfort zone to take on world record holder Peirsol in the backstroke.
The result was a spanking defeat, and a sobering reminder of the challenge the American faces to topple the two-time Olympic champion at the 2012 London Games.
"Aaron and I have had our battles back and forth, that's the fun part about racing Aaron," Phelps said. "He's a racer, a competitor and someone I like to race."
While Phelps and coach Bob Bowman have not divulged a programme for the London Olympics, the 100m backstroke is believed to be part of the plan.
Peirsol, who successfully defended his Athens gold in Beijing, made it clear he had no intention of surrendering the event he has made his own.
"I'm sure he knows I'm not ready to (give it up)," said Peirsol. "By no means is anybody giving anything to anybody."
"I definitely wanted to win that ... He (Phelps) is always up for it. He doesn't like to lose so I have to go in there with the same mentality."
Phelps earlier qualified for the 50m freestyle final, posting the eighth best time in the morning preliminaries, but withdrew to focus on the 100m backstroke.
That left the spotlight to Frenchman Fred Bousquet, who set a world record in the sprint last month at the French national championships.
Bousquet, the first swimmer to break through the 21-second barrier, duly added the U.S. open record to his collection clocking 21.33 seconds to edge out American Cullen Jones on 21.92.
The Frenchman's success was tempered by frustration over media attention toward the new hi-tech swimsuit he wore during his record swim last month, and which is now being examined by FINA, world swimming's governing body.
"Right now I feel like I am back home in France, that is all they are talking about," said Bousquet of the suit, which some coaches and athletes have claimed unfairly benefits the wearer with enhanced buoyancy. "It's really annoying."
"Before the suit people were using the reason of drugs (for the world records).
"Suits are improving and so are we. We are improving our swimming, our training."