ROME (AP) — The United States received an award as the top-performing country at the world swimming championships.

No surprise there. The Americans have long been on top in the pool pecking order, overwhelming other countries with their depth of quality swimmers.

But it looks as though the rest of the world is catching up.

Fast.

The U.S. had its worst showing at these every-other-year championships since 1994, when the meet also was held at Rome’s Foro Italico. The American showing — 10 golds, six silvers, six bronzes — was its lowest total since that team from 15 years ago managed only 21 medals overall.

“The world is becoming so much more competitive,” said Aaron Peirsol, who learned that the hard way when he shockingly failed to qualify for the 100-meter backstroke final. “That can only be a beneficial thing for swimming. Competition raises the level of everybody.”

But the U.S. is used to dominating in the pool.

At the last worlds in Melbourne, the Americans piled up 36 medals — 20 golds, 13 silvers and three bronzes. That provided the spark heading into last year’s Beijing Olympics, where the U.S. actually won even more golds (21) with fewer events, part of a 31-medal haul that left no doubt which country was on top.

The Americans were still leading in Rome, but with a much smaller margin. Australia was only six behind in the medal standings with three golds, four silvers and nine bronzes. China won 10 medals, signaling a rise that everyone expected for Beijing but maybe was a year behind schedule. Germany captured nine medals, and Britain claimed seven — an encouraging performance by a country that will undoubtedly be looking to improve even more heading its home Olympics, the 2012 London Games.

The U.S. men were expected to carry the load on a team loaded with females still in their teens, and that turned out to be the case as the males won eight golds, the females only two.

Still, the men weren’t quite as impressive as everyone projected. There was Peirsol’s shocker. Michael Phelps won five golds, but did lose to Germany’s Paul Biedermann in the 200 freestyle. The sprinters didn’t manage a medal in the 50 or 100 free.

“I know the men’s team, we got off to a pretty flat start,” Peirsol said. “Once we settled into the meet, we started kind of raising our level. We had no choice. The meet was incredibly fast (with 43 world records). The rest of the world was ready to step up.”

The U.S. knew the women’s team was rebuilding after Beijing. Ariana Kukors pulled off a stunning gold in the 200 individual medley, but this group seemed mostly like kids on the big stage for the first time. The biggest shocker came in the 400 medley relay, an event the Americans had won gold or silver in at every previous world championship; they didn’t even get out of the preliminaries in Rome.

Not even Dara Torres could help. The 42-year-old gave it a go with an ailing knee and swimsuit issues, but she failed to get out of the preliminaries in the 50 butterfly and finished last in the final of the 50 free.

The Americans are counting on the return of veterans such as Natalie Coughlin, who’s taking the year off, and they believe all the youngsters will benefit from their first major meet, even if it didn’t go as well as they hoped.

“When we look at it two years from now, we’re going to say this was a good starting point for us,” said Mark Schubert, general manager of the U.S. program. “But obviously we have a lot of work to do.”


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