A sluggish-looking Michael Phelps launched his final Olympics Saturday night in uncharacteristic fashion, leaving the pool without a stop at the medal platform after a fourth-place finish in the 400-meter individual medley. It's the first time he has exited a Summer Games event empty-handed since his first Olympics in 2000.
Instead, his rival Ryan Lochte was the one who swam dominantly, taking the lead in the first 100 meters to win the first gold medal awarded in the eight-day swimming competition. Winning silver and bronze were Brazilian Thiago Pereira and Japanese national champion Kosuke Hagino.
"It's pretty upsetting, and the biggest thing now is just to try to get past this and move forward," Phelps, 27, said. "I have a bunch of other races and hopefully we can finish a lot better than we started." Phelps, the world record-holder in the event, finished more than four seconds behind Lochte's 4:05.18.
The Baltimore swimmer never seemed to get into the groove of the notoriously arduous race, considered swimming's decathalon. While normally powerful in the opening 100 meters of the butterfly, his signature stroke, he was in second place to Lochte going into the backstroke portion, the Florida-based swimmer's specialty.
Phelps began losing even more ground in the second half of the race, and couldn't make it up as he has so often in the past in the freestyle finish.
His coach, Bob Bowman, agreed with Phelps' self-review. "He said it was horrible. It was," Bowman said. "He accurately assessed it."
Bowman said it ultimately came down to "a fitness issue," pointing to the late start Phelps got in training for these Games after Beijing. Phelps has acknowledged that he slackened off in the aftermath of his thrilling yet mentally exhausting 2008 performance, when he won gold in all eight of his races, breaking Mark Spitz's record.
The first day of swimming competition drew some high-profile visitors to the Aquatics Centre: Queen Ellizabeth, fresh off her star turn in Friday night's opening ceremonies -- she appeared in a video clip with Daniel Craig, the actor who portrays James Bond -- popped in to the morning session; while U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama arrived for the Lochte-Phelps matchup.
Phelps has also been characterizing his performances in international competitions between 2008 and now as horrible, although given that he has had strong races in that time, his remarks seemed at times like a way to perhaps get the competition to underestimate him.
But Phelps looked more vulnerable and less the superman on Saturday night, raising questions of how he will race in the rest of his events. He came into these Games expected to swim in seven events, although three are relays whose team members are selected on the day of the race.
Asked whether his 400 IM performance would affect the coaches' selection of the four swimmers in Monday's 400 freestyle relay, men's coach Gregg Troy said, "We're going to sit down and talk."
"Michael's a heck of an athlete. He wasn't quite as sharp as he'd like to be. Tomorrow's a new day," Troy said. "Michael's bounced back. He's looked good in practice. I think he'll be fine tomorrow and the day after."
Troy said the coaches have talked and have "a pretty good idea what we're doing. ... It's a good group of guys, they know what's going on, great team attitude."
The women's relay team, anchored by Allison Schmitt, who trains at North Baltimore Aquatic Club, won a bronze medal in its 400 free relay, setting a new American record of 3:34.24. Australia won gold and the Netherlands silver.
"It was a fun relay," Schmitt said, "and they're always exciting."
Leading off was star-in-the-making Missy Franklin, who gave the U.S. the lead, which Jessica Hardy kept. The team dropped to second in the third leg, swum by Lia Neal, as Australia pushed into the lead.
A clearly disappointed Natalie Coughlin, the 11-time Olympic medalist, was left off the team although she gets a medal for swimming in the morning preliminaries. Coughlin, 29, has seen her portfolio shrink as younger stars like Franklin rise, although she remains a leader of the team, serving multiple years including this one as a co-captain.
"I don't envy the coaches, what they had to go through this morning," Coughlin said of the selection process. "I'm very, very happy for the four girls who swam tonight."
Women's coach Teri McKeever, also Coughlin's longtime personal coach, said it was painful but ultimately "a mathematical" decision to drop the veteran. The coaches didn't just look at the swimmers' splits, but subtracted the relay exchanges and considered that number. Neal and Schmitt were the two fastest from the morning preliminaries by that measure, McKeever said.
Troy, the University of Florida coach, had a good night: In addition to Lochte's 400 IM gold, fellow Gators Elizabeth Beisel won silver in the women's 400 IM and Peter Vanderkaay won bronze in the 400-meter freestyle.
Dana Vollmer set a new Olympic record swimming her 100-meter breaststroke preliminary heat in 56.25 seconds. She and teammate advanced in the evening semifinal heats to qualify for Sunday's medal round. Brendan Hansen will advance to Sunday's 100-meter breaststroke final.
Troy said that while Lochte should have had a faster freestyle portion of the 400 IM, he was pleased that as he's grown in confidence, he takes charge of races. "He's not dictated by the field," he said.
Lochte seemed to embrace his role on top, at least for this night, saying his Twitter account that he couldn't have done it without Phelps. After the morning preliminaries, when Phelps finished an astonishing eighth to just make it to a final spot in the final, Lochte said no one should ever count him out.
"I'm going to talk to him and see how he felt about that," Lochte said.
By failing to win the 400 IM, Phelps may have missed his opportunity to become the first male swimmer to win three gold medals in the same event in three Olympics. He has two more chances for a three-peat, but another swimmer, Kosuke Kitajima, may be first to get there: He advanced in Saturday night's 100-meter breastroke race to Sunday's final.