Michael Phelps hadn't lost the 200 butterfly since 2002, a span of two Olympics, four world championships and countless international races. So when he didn't touch the wall first in the race at a weekend meet, you'd have thought that would have been the biggest news of the race.
But Phelps didn't just lose, snapping the streak which nearly spanned a decade; he wasn't fast enough to make it to the medal stand.
The 14-time Olympic gold medalist finished fourth in his signature race on Saturday night, part of a disappointing effort at the Namesnik Grand Prix at the University of Michigan. Phelps won three of his six events (200 free, 100 fly and 100 backstroke) but was the runner-up in two others (100 free and 200 IM). He wasn't shy in describing his thoughts on the performance.
"Awful," he said. "Miserable."
Phelps called his struggles in Michigan "a wake-up call," a sentiment he's used before to describe his post-Olympics malaise. For his sake, it better be. With the world championships in Beijing this summer and the Olympics just 15 months away, the most decorated gold medalist of all time can't wait much longer to get back into peak training form.
He appears to realize this, taking motivation from the whispers of other swimmers. After the meet, Phelps told reporters he heard that some competitors have been talking trash.
"There's been a couple of comments, here and there, that have kind of set a little fire underneath me, so that's good — that's what I need.
"Whether it's things that I overhear, or, 'he said, she said,' or comments that were directly said to me, they're going to be used. [...] They're going to fire me up."
Great athletes like Phelps can turn the most innocent of moments into perceived slights. How else do you motivate yourself when you completed the greatest performance in the history of the Olympics? Goal-setting is next-to-impossible when you've already climbed the Olympic equivalent of Everest. There has to be something else to get you in the pool at 5 a.m. and keep you in the weight room that extra hour. What better motivation than the chump in the lane next to you who thinks you're finished?
The comments could have been innocent. They may never have existed at all. It doesn't matter. Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, will use anything to get motivated for the long, difficult trek to London. Even if it was just a whisper heard third-hand, by the time this is over Phelps may convince himself that somebody told him to his face that he was fat, washed up and over the hill.
There are 473 days until the 2012 Olympics. For Michael Phelps, the long trek to London may have just begun.
- Michael Phelps