Monday 19 February 2018

London 2012: Phelps blown out of water by supreme Lochte

Beijing hero now in slipstream of rival, says Dion Fanning

By the time Michael Phelps turned to swim the final 50 metres of the 400m individual medley last night, the large USA contingent in the Aquatic Centre were willing him home. But they weren't encouraging him for a gold, simply for a medal.

Phelps qualified for last night's final with the slowest time in yesterday morning's heat. As a result, he was in lane eight, away from the action and in the final 50 metres he was nearly half a second behind Japan's Kosuke Hagino. Ryan Lochte was swimming a different race.

"I was in kind of a shock at the end," Lochte said. "For four years I've been training hard. This is just my first event, so I'm really happy. I'm ready to rock this Olympics."

At the finish, Lochte took gold and Phelps was outside the medals, not the result he had anticipated as he began his pursuit of the three medals that will make him the most decorated Olympian of all time. "Michael trains harder than anyone but he's just one man, there are other swimmers," Lochte said.

"I felt great for the first 200m, but after that it just didn't happen," Phelps said later. "I was lucky to get here. I had the chance to get off on a good note but didn't do it."

Perhaps, even in that comment there was evidence of Phelps' new challenge. He is pursuing history, while Lochte represents a clear and present danger. Phelps congratulated him after the race on keeping the gold medal in the US. Phelps had won this event in Athens and Beijing so the congratulations were tempered. "I know at the same time he's kind of upset."

Last night was Lochte's race. He didn't break the world record but he dominated the field, finishing nearly four seconds ahead of silver medallist Thiago Pereira of Brazil.

Lochte has always been more than just a rival for Phelps but having only won gold in Beijing in races without Phelps, last night's victory was an assertion that he is now the greatest swimmer in the world. Until 2010, he had lost 17 times in a row to Phelps.

The disappointment will be that the rivalry that was billed as one of the greatest in Olympic history never revealed itself. The opening weekend of the Olympics has been a stunning success but it still needs the great sporting moment, with the contest in the pool non-existent and Mark Cavendish failing on the bike.

The empty seats beside the pool last night before the 400m individual medley also suggests that the ticketing procedures haven't been successful.

Phelps has his own issues. He has six more events to come in the next week. If he gets a medal in three of them, he will have 19 and move past the record of Larisa Latynina.

Yet in coasting to them he may damage his reputation. US swimmer Tyler Clary has already criticised Phelps' training, saying after a training camp that he "was a swimmer that didn't want to be there" before adding: "I saw somebody that has basically been asking to get beat for the longest time."

Clary apologised to Phelps for the comments but he was right and Phelps knew it, having struggled since Beijing to push himself as he once did.

"There were probably 10 times when I woke and was like, 'What am I doing?'" he told Sports Illustrated recently.

He will ask himself what he is doing this week. "I'm a bit frustrated," he added. "I'm not feeling that great. I just want to put this race behind me."

From Lochte there was the worst thing of all from a fierce rival -- sympathy. "No matter what happens he will go down as one of the world's greatest."

In the US trials, Lochte beat Phelps by almost a second. The time between them last night was more than four seconds. They'll be in the pool together again on Wednesday, but Phelps now has to prove he can make a race of it.

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