LONDON — Ryan Lochte had said all year that this year was his year. Michael Phelps may have won eight gold medals in eight tries in Beijing but that was a quadrennium ago and half a world away. Lochte was the world champion in the 400-meter individual medley now and Phelps had been in his backwash at the Olympic trials.
And so he was again here on Saturday night as Lochte destroyed the field by open water, leaving his archrival far behind and off the podium. “When I touched the wall I was in shock,” confessed Lochte, after he’d won by 3.68 seconds, ahead of Brazil’s Thiago Pereira and Japan’s Kosuke Hagino. “I think I still am, that I finally won.”
The bigger shock may have been that Phelps not only was beaten but he failed to make the medal stand for only the second time in 18 races at four Games. “It’s OK,” said Phelps, who’d collected 14 golds and two bronzes, missing out only in the 200 butterfly in his debut as a 15-year-old at Sydney in 2000. “It’s just really frustrating to start off on a bad note like this. It’s pretty upsetting but the biggest thing now is to try to get past this and move forward.”
Phelps, who needs three more medals to break the career record set by Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina between 1956 and 1964, could have six more chances here. He’s a candidate for Sunday’s 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay, where he won gold in 2008 and bronze in 2004. He’ll be favored in Tuesday’s 200 fly and should claim another gold as part of the 4 x 200 freestyle relay. On Thursday, he’ll have a rematch with Lochte in the 200 IM, will be favored in Friday’s 100 fly, and will swim on the 4 x 100 medley relay in Saturday’s finale. “The next races that he’s in, he’s going to light it up,” predicted Lochte.
So missing a medal in what figured to be Phelps’s weakest individual event should have little impact on his quest to break Latynina’s mark. “It’s weird not having Michael with me on the medal stand,” said Lochte, who’d won the bronze behind him in both medley races in 2008 and joined him on the victorious 4 x 200 relays in Athens and Beijing.
Phelps had been fortunate to make the final at all, grabbing the eighth spot by just seven-100ths of a second in the prelims. “You can’t get the gold medal from the morning,” he said. But he never had a chance at night. When Lochte beat him in the opening fly leg, it was a harbinger.
Gradually the medals began slipping away. After the backstroke leg, Phelps was third. After the breaststroke leg, he was fourth, which is where he stayed. His time of 4:09:28 was more than five seconds slower than it was in Beijing. “They just swam a better race than me, a smarter race than me,” conceded Phelps. “That’s why they’re on the medal stand.”
While Phelps will be chasing history this week, Lochte will be trying to boost his golden stash. Although he’d won three of them at his two previous Games, only one — in the 200 back in Beijing — came in an individual event. That figured to change here. Lochte was the class of the field in the 400 IM and after cruising in third in the morning, he cut loose with a fury. Midway through the final he was more than two seconds ahead of the 17-year-old Hagino. Going into the final 100, he had open water on the world. “I kept on looking at the scoreboard, so I guess that kind of slowed me down. It wasn’t just me and Michael. There were other swimmers there.”
But nobody who was going to challenge him. This was Lochte’s race and, finally, his year. What was important, Phelps told Lochte when he congratulated him in the dressing room, was that the Americans had kept their stranglehold on the 400 IM, which they’ve now won at five straight Games. “Way to keep it going,” Phelps told him. At all of them the US had put two men on the podium, three times going 1-2.
That streak ended this time, but the Yanks were able to claim their customary bronze in the 400 freestyle with Peter Vanderkaay. What was different was where the champion came from. No Chinese male ever had won a swimming gold until Sun Yang pulled it off, knocking off Korean defending champion Park Tae Hwan by nearly two seconds in 3:40:14 while taking down the Olympic record of 3:40:59 that Australia’s Ian Thorpe had set in his home pool in 2000.
“I swam a good race myself and I did not look at the others,” said Sun, who’s odds-on to win the 1,500 as well. Park was fortunate to be on the podium at all after being disqualified for a false start after he’d already won his heat. When the international swimming federation reversed the decision, Park found himself in the final, displacing Canada’s Ryan Cochrane. “There was a problem,” said Park, “but now it is solved.”
The surest bet on the books was that the US women, who’ve made the podium in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay at every Games since 1920, would do it here. For the first time since 1988, though, it was bronze as the quartet of Missy Franklin, Jessica Hardy, Lia Neal and Allison Schmitt came in behind the Australians and the Dutch. Would veteran Natalie Coughlin, who was left out of the final despite posting the team’s fastest morning swim, have upgraded the group to silver, which they won in 2004 and 2008? Coughlin, who won a record six medals in Beijing, won’t get another chance here. She got her bronze in a box.