"Just a crappy race," he said.
"Horrible," concurred his coach, Bob Bowman.
The Phelps Pharewell Tour could not have started any worse. No gold medal for the first time in an Olympic swim since 2004. No medal at all for the first time since he was a 15-year-old in Sydney in 2000. A hugely anticipated showdown with friendly rival Ryan Lochte that turned into a total mismatch. A heavy physical expenditure in the most grueling of races, with no hardware to show for it and plenty more work to do in the coming days. And gnawing suspicion about whether this entire London Games might be a bust for the greatest swimmer of all time.
After watching Phelps barely sneak into the eight-man 400-meter individual medley final Saturday morning, then finish a dull fourth Saturday night, swimming insiders were buzzing about whether this was a precursor of doom for the rest of this meet. Specifically, they were wondering whether Phelps and Bowman miscalculated his taper.
Tapering is the half-art, half-science of slowing down and refreshing a tired body before a major meet. Elite swimmers log an incredible amount of yardage year-round, then cut back on the workload and increase rest to maximize performance. The trick is timing it just right.
This has never been a problem throughout Phelps's career -- but this also has been a highly unusual quadrennial. With Phelps well behind schedule after being slow to return to training following his record-setting eight gold medals in Beijing, Bowman has had to play catch-up in 2011 and '12 to get his star pupil back to somewhere near peak form.
But Phelps appeared to be on target last month at the U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha, Nebraska, where he won four events and finished second in a fifth race. And Bowman has said repeatedly that Phelps was training well with the U.S. team in Knoxville, Tennessee, and in France leading up to London.
[ Photos: Lochte vs. Phelps in the 400m IM ]
But this 400 IM marked a major regression, leading some to wonder whether Phelps left his best swims behind in Omaha. With six events still to swim here in London, that's a grim possibility.
"I honestly don't think it's a fitness issue," Bowman said. "He just didn't -- I don't know. I just don't know. In the long run it's ultimately a fitness issue of what he hasn't done over four years. So yes."
If he'd swam the 4:07.89 he put on the board in Omaha, Phelps would have had a silver medal around his neck and a smile on his face. Instead his time was 4:09.28, and the look on his face was a mixture of anger and confusion. Losing only to Lochte wouldn't have hurt nearly as badly as also losing to the unheralded Thiago Pereira of Brazil and Kosuke Hagino of Japan, who took silver and bronze, respectively.
[ Video: Raising an Olympian -- Ryan Lochte ]
So they actually held a 400 IM medal ceremony without Michael Phelps, two-time defending champion in the event. Stunning.
"I'll tell you what, it's weird," Lochte said. "It's weird not having Michael with me on the medal stand."
The next question for the U.S. coaching staff is what to do with Phelps on the 400 freestyle relay, which is Sunday. Prior to Saturday it was assumed Phelps was a lock to swim a leg in the final, while others did the dirty work of qualifying in the morning semifinals and hoping they were fast enough to swim again that night.
But if Phelps is far off his form, can the Americans risk giving him a pass to the final in an event where winning gold will take a Herculean effort and just making the podium is no sure thing?
"We'll sit down and talk," said U.S. men's coach Gregg Troy. "Michael's a heck of an athlete. He wasn't quite as sharp as he has been, but tomorrow's a new day. We've got a pretty good idea what we're doing."
The issue now is what Bowman and Phelps can do to regroup. The toll from this disastrous Saturday could be considerable.
Four years ago, Phelps giddily announced his retirement from the 400 IM, saying he'd never swim it again. He reconsidered -- with a nudge from Bowman -- because he was still good at it. But at age 27, the physical demand of swimming two 400 IMs in a day is immense -- and it may compromise him for the rest of the meet.
"I hate to swim two of those and not get a medal, but that's what we've done," Bowman said. "We just have to put it behind us and move on. We'll know more tomorrow."
After using the 400 IM as a mental springboard in the past two Olympic Games, Phelps now must keep it from becoming a mental anchor that drags him down.
"It's just really frustrating to start off on a bad note like this," Phelps said. "It's pretty upsetting. The biggest thing now is just to get past this and move forward. Hopefully I'll finish a lot better than I started."
If he doesn't, the Michael Phelps Pharewell Tour will take on a much different tone than anyone expected.
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