LONDON — Michael Phelps showed his vulnerability in the very first race of the Olympic swim meet Saturday night, finishing fourth as U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte easily won the 400 individual medley to earn America its first gold medal of these Summer Olympics.
What was supposed to be a rivalry turned into a rout, with Lochte leading the field by about three body lengths when the race ended. Phelps, who nearly missed qualifying for the final, was never in real contention and was out-touched at the wall for third.
The moods of the two best male swimmers in the U.S. couldnt have been more different afterward. Ive said this before this is my year, Lochte exulted.
Frustrating, Phelps said. It was pretty upsetting. But the biggest thing now is trying to get past this and move forward. I have a bunch of other races and hopefully we can finish a lot better than how we started.
Brazils Thiago Pereira and Japans Kosuke Hagino separated Lochte and Phelps by finishing second and third, respectively. Phelps world record of 4 minutes, 3.84 seconds set in a high-tech swimsuit in the 2008 Olympics was not seriously threatened by Lochte (4:05.18), but Phelps was nearly six seconds off his pace from 2008. Lochte led almost wire-to-wire, winning by more than three seconds in what is generally considered swimmings most grueling race.
Phelps called it a crappy race afterward while Lochte alternated between celebration and surprise. When I touched the wall, I guess I was in shock, he said. I think I still am that I finally won.
As for not having Phelps with him on the medal stand, Lochte said: Tell you what, its weird.
And it was weird. Phelps had medaled in his past 16 Olympic events, with 14 golds and two bronzes. He won six golds in eight events in the 2004 Olympics, then gave one of the most dynamic performances in Olympic history in China when he went eight-for-eight on gold medals. He remains two short of the all-time record for overall medals.
But Phelps has been getting beaten with some regularity in various events this season. Lochte had beaten him in the 400 individual medley at the U.S. Olympic Trials (where Phelps was faster than he was in London) and has defeated him enough that it is commonly accepted in the swim world that Lochte has been a better swimmer than Phelps since Beijing.
Charlottes Ricky Berens also beat Phelps in the 200 freestyle at the Charlotte UltraSwim in May. And there had been several other losses for Phelps, some in his signature butterfly stroke.
Still, the Olympics is usually where Phelps puts everything together. He had won the 400 individual medley in each of the past two Olympics and was trying to become the first male swimmer to win the same individual event at three straight.
Phelps, 27, plans to make these his final Olympics while Lochte, who is actually about 11 months older, plans to continue swimming through at least 2016. Phelps had talked earlier in the week about bringing his career to closure with several more fine performances.
Its really how many toppings do I want on my sundae? he said then.
On Saturday, he didnt get any.
Phelps didnt mention Lochte in his brief interview following the event, but later congratulated his teammate, according to Lochte.
He was definitely proud of me, Lochte said. I know at the same time he was kind of upset.
Phelps and Lochte each have as many as six more races at these Olympics, depending on which relays they swim. They will face off one more time, in the 200 individual medley.
Lochte said he expected Phelps would still win a lot at these Olympics. The next races that hes in, hes going to light it up, Lochte said.
Maybe. Maybe not. Phelps also looked vulnerable in the races morning preliminaries, barely making the final. He finished eighth-fastest sliding into the last spot in the eight-man final in a morning that hinted at the fourth-place finish to come.
A lot of people say Michael is inhuman, Lochte said. But you know what? Hes just like all of us.
Lochte has been telling himself that for years. In Beijing, it wasnt true.
In London, it finally is.
Scott Fowler: email@example.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler