Michael Phelps narrowly avoided one of the most stunning stories in recent Olympic memory on the first day of competition at the London Games, swimming a lackadaisical qualifying heat in the 400 IM that barely qualified him for Saturday night's eight-man finals.
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The 14-time gold medalist finished with the eighth-fastest time in the five heats. If he had gone .06 seconds slower, he would have been left out of the final in the event that he's won at the past two Olympics. Phelps has been considered a shoo-in for at least a silver medal in London's 400 IM, an event which will serve as the first of two battles with American teammate Ryan Lochte.
"I didn't expect those guys to go that fast in their heat," Phelps said to reporters. "I was slower this morning than I was four years ago."
Despite the slow race and the tight finish, Phelps has nothing to worry about. Nothing that happened on Saturday morning will affect Saturday night's performance. The only thing Phelps was guilty of in the qualifying heat was underestimating the rest of the field. And though it looked like he barely clung to that final spot, his placement in the final was never really in doubt. Here's why:
Of the five heats, the final three are circle-seeded, which means that the top 24 swimmers are placed in the last heats and spread out through each. Phelps was in the fourth of five heats. After watching the third-heat swim, Phelps would have known that winning the race with a mid-4:14 -- the same time he swam at prelims at Olympic trials last month -- would get him into third-place overall. With only five swimmers in the final heat capable of coming close to a 4:14, Phelps, and coach Bob Bowman, knew he was safe so long as he won his own heat.
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That's exactly the way it played out. Phelps out-touched Cseh, a 2008 bronze medalist, and then saw five swimmers in the next heat beat his time. The sixth-place finishers touched in 4:17.22, almost four seconds behind Phelps' eighth-place cut line. In reality, he was never in any great danger after winning his heat.
Phelps treated the 400 IM preliminary race like he did the first three years post-Beijing: with apathy. Since leaving the pool with his eighth gold medal at the Water Cube, no race has mattered very much to Phelps. World championships were big. Making the Olympic team was a necessity, as was qualifying for Saturday night's final. But Phelps didn't make a run to London to do well in prelims. It's all been geared toward the final. So far, so good, if a little closer than expected.
His issue on Saturday night won't be that lazy first race or his placement at the bottom of the pool in lane eight (that may actually help him -- he'll be swimming with clean water next to him in an empty lane). It will be the simple fact that his rival, Ryan Lochte, is a better 400 IMer right now. Lochte has greatly improved his breaststroke since Beijing and utilizes the dolphin kick in the pullout better than his American teammate. His closing speed looks like Phelps in his prime.
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Michael Phelps hasn't lost a race at an Olympics in eight years. He's never won a silver medal. Both those streaks should come to an end Saturday night. With Lochte five lanes away, Phelps won't be able to see it coming. The 400 IM, the event he vowed to never swim after Beijing will be his early downfall in London.
Or will there be some Michael Phelps magic still left in the pool? He was in a miracle relay in 2008 and won two Olympic 100 butterflies by microscopic levels. For as dominant as he's been, he's been just as good at winning races when he's the second-best swimmer in the pool. Does he have it in him for another stunner?
Prediction: Gold: Ryan Lochte (USA); Silver: Michael Phelps (USA); Bronze: Kosuke Hagino (JPN)
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