The London Olympics got off to a disastrous start for Michael Phelps, as the 14-time gold medalist finished off the podium in the 400 IM, the event he had won at the past two Summer Games. It was Phelps' first Olympic loss in eight years. The last time he failed to medal was in his debut as a 15-year-old in Sydney.
Ryan Lochte steamrolled the rest of the field to win the gold medal. He was ahead of Phelps' world-record pace for much of the race but faltered in the freestyle leg. His winning time of 4:05.18 was more than a second behind the mark Phelps set in Beijing. The world record may have proved elusive, but Lochte drew first blood in his much-heralded matchup with Phelps.
[ Photos: Showdown between Lochte and Phelps ]
Even in defeat, Phelps still made the headlines. The loss to Lochte wasn't unexpected. Finishing off the podium was the shocker. Even the most pessimistic scenarios didn't have Phelps finishing any worse than silver in this event. This was one of his signature events in his prime, a race he didn't lose at a major competition for more than five years. On Saturday, he looked like just another swimmer in Lane 8.
When Phelps barely qualified for the final in the morning heats, most believed he misjudged his time and would correct course in the evening session. Now the swimming world is left to wonder whether there's another reason for the Olympic great's dismal performance. He'll be favored in both butterfly events and should win multiple golds with the American relay team. Losing to Lochte by such a large margin in the 400 IM will likely make Phelps an underdog in the 200 IM when that race is contested next week. It doesn't mean he should be buried on the first day of London competition. Phelps wasn't going to sweep his events like he did in Beijing. Getting dethroned was inevitable. No one thought three men would lead the coup.
Phelps vowed to retire from the 400 IM after winning the event in both Athens and Beijing. Now he and his coach Bob Bowman will have to wonder whether he should have stayed that way. While Phelps rested, Lochte took over the event, winning the world championships in 2009 and 2011. Lochte was the considerable favorite to win on Saturday night, though it was widely assumed that the pair would finish one-two in London.
Thiago Pereira of Brazil and Kosuke Hagino of Japan finished in second and third, respectively. "They swam a better race than me," Phelps told reporters. "They swam a smarter race than me. They were more prepared."
The loss keeps Phelps three medals away from breaking Larisa Latynina for most medals won in Olympic history. His next chance for a medal is Sunday in the 4x100 medley relay. He'll swim his next individual final on Tuesday night in the 200 butterfly, another event he's won in two consecutive Olympics. He's not expected to lose that race. But after Saturday night, we've learned that expectations don't mean much in the new era of swimming.
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