Phil Sheridan: Phelps, once superhuman, looks helpless in 400 IM

Posted: July 29, 2012

LONDON - It's hard to say which was more shocking: seeing Michael Phelps straggle to the wall four seconds behind Ryan Lochte, or not seeing Phelps on the podium after the 400-meter individual medley here Saturday.

Coming into Swimageddon, the much-hyped matchup between the two rivals, it certainly seemed possible that Lochte would defeat the most-decorated swimmer in Olympic history. But what transpired was unimaginable.

The once-superhuman Phelps looked helpless, fading badly after a strong 200 meters. Earlier in the day, he'd barely qualified for the final. Phelps was uncharacteristically forced to swim in Lane 8, nowhere near his usual spot in the middle of the action.

All of that was shocking. Maybe even more unsettling, though, was Phelps' demeanor afterward. He looked dazed, uncertain. Again, we're talking about Michael Phelps here.

"Just a crappy race," Phelps said. "I felt fine the first, like, 200, then I don't know. They just swam a better race than me, swam a smarter race than me, were more prepared. That's why they're on the medal stand."

They - Lochte, Brazil's Thiago Pereira, and Japan's Kosuke Hagino - were on Phelps' medal stand. He owned the podium for the last two Olympics. Phelps competed in eight events in Athens and eight in Beijing. He was on the podium all 16 times - 14 times on the top step.

"It was weird, not having Michael on the medal stand," Lochte said. "His next race, he's going to light it up."

Maybe. That's what makes this so fascinating. If this had gone as expected, with Lochte or Phelps touching the wall hundredths of a second in front of the other, it wouldn't have shaken the needle on the seismograph. This was, after all, a race Phelps has announced he would stop competing in. He agreed to swim it in these Games even though Lochte beat him at the U.S. trials. Maybe because Lochte beat him at the trials.

But this? Phelps looked disinterested or unmotivated or just plain incapable of competing. His coach, Bob Bowman, offered a withering critique based on swimmer Tyler Clary's now infamous comment that Phelps doesn't work as hard as other competitors.

"He didn't get by on talent tonight," Bowman said. "I'm surprised, and not pleasantly. We'll just have to put it behind us and move on. I thought he was in a good place. I expected he would be in the 4:06 or :07 range."

Phelps finished two to three seconds slower, at 4 minutes, 9.28 seconds. In Beijing, he won one of his eight gold medals with a world-record time of 4:03.84. So he was more than five seconds slower than his own best race.

While Lochte more than deserved his gold medal, the first won by the United States in these Olympics, this still winds up being about Phelps. Lochte's winning time was 1.34 seconds slower than the 2008 Phelps.

"This is my year," Lochte said. "I know it, and I feel it. I've put in hard work. I've trained my butt off for four years. I just feel inside my gut this is my year. There's no better way to start this Olympics, with my first race, than with the gold. It definitely gives me a lot more energy. I'm going to carry this atmosphere I've created throughout the Games."

Later this week, Phelps will get one more shot at Lochte in the 200 IM, a shorter race that plays more to Phelps' strengths. With his other events, including relays, Phelps will have a total of six more chances to win medals. He is still likely to leave London with more career medals than any other Olympian.

But there was no sign Saturday of the colossus of Beijing. That Phelps found ways to win. This Phelps just looked and sounded lost.

"Frustrating," Phelps said. "That's all I can say. It's pretty upsetting. It's just really frustrating to start off on a bad note like this. I think the biggest thing now is to try to get past this and move forward."

He was in such uncharted territory - not just losing a race but getting smoked, that you almost felt sorry for him. For Michael Phelps. Before this race, that would have been unimaginable.

The beauty of the Olympics is that Phelps has six chances to make it seem unimaginable again.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Sheridanscribe. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

 

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