LONDON – Michael Phelps’ reign as the world’s most dominant Olympic swimmer took a serious hit in his first race at the London Games.
Ryan Lochte captured the gold medal in the 400-meter individual medley on Saturday, while Phelps finished fourth – failing to medal for the first time since the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney when he was just 15 years old. Lochte showed why he has been considered the world’s best swimmer over the last year, holding strong throughout the race before making his move in the backstroke and then steadily pulling away in the breaststroke and freestyle.
And while Lochte’s performance was brilliant, Phelps' struggle was equally captivating as the race wore on. Phelps has typically been able to make his move in the butterfly leg of the medley and finish strong in the freestyle, but he struggled to make up ground or mount a charge in any of the four legs of the race.
Japan’s 17-year-old Kosuke Hagino held off Phelps down the race's final 50 meters during the freestyle leg, touching at 4:08.94 and nudging Phelps off the medal stand. Phelps finished at 4:09.28.
"It was a crappy race," Phelps said. "I felt fine for the first 200 meters and then I just don’t know. They just swam a better race – a smarter race than me. They were more prepared. That’s why they are on the medal stand."
[ Photos: Ryan Lochte vs. Michael Phelps in 400 IM ]
Phelps moved from third to second position in the second 50 meters of the race, but was never able to mount a serious charge from there. His splits gradually faded as the race went on, and he slipped from second to third during the second half of the backstroke leg. Hagino overtook Phelps in the front end of the freestyle and was never seriously threatened for third place.
Phelps arrived at his block in typical fashion – goggled up and under a set of headphones. He toweled off his block and shook his arms, loosening up before taking his perch. But his departure was far different than anything we’ve seen in an Olympic games. After touching, he stared at the video board in mixture of disgust, disbelief and anger.
"The biggest thing is to get past this and move forward," Phelps said. "I have a bunch of other races. Hopefully we can finish a lot better than we started."
The result may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts for Phelps, who dominated the 400 IM worldwide for the last five years but repeatedly let the world know his distaste for the grueling event. After capturing the gold in the event in Beijing, he vowed it would be the last time he entered it in the Olympics. But as London crept closer, Phelps and his coach Bob Bowman gave signs they were once again looking at the event as a challenge Phelps could handle.
The superstar of the Beijing Games came stunningly close to even missing the medal round of the 400 IM, snagging the eighth and final qualifying spot Saturday morning by out-touching Laszlo Cseh by .07 seconds – 4:13.33 to 4:13.40. His time was almost six seconds slower than both his qualifying time in this year’s Omaha trials and his preliminary time in Beijing four years ago.
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Phelps seemed surprised at his qualifying time, stopping in the mixed zone and staring over reporters at one point to watch Lochte’s final, perhaps aware that he was close to being eliminated.
"I don’t know, that one didn’t feel too good," Phelps said. "I just wanted to try and get some good underwaters, try to get some good turns and carry my speed in and out of the walls. A final spot is a final spot.
"You can’t win the gold medal from the morning."
As it turned out, he also didn't win a medal in the evening.
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