LONDON -- It was a strange sight, an Olympic medal ceremony following a race by Michael Phelps without Phelps standing atop the podium.
If you go to the Lincoln Memorial, you expect to see Abraham Lincoln sitting in his chair. If you go to the Olympic swimming venue, you expect to see Phelps on the podium. The last time he was absent was 11 years and 312 days ago in 2000. The last time he wasn’t on the top step after an individual event was 7 years, 11 months and 12 days ago in 2004.
So when the gold medal was bestowed upon winner Ryan Lochte on Saturday, Lochte looked happy but dazed, as if he had awakened from a bewildering dream. Not only was Phelps not next to him while The Star-Spangled Banner played, but Phelps had not been next to him when he touched the wall in the 400-meter individual medley.
“Weird,” Lochte said.
Phelps lost his first race at the London Games. He lost badly. He finished fourth, 4.10 seconds and 7 yards behind Lochte. It might as well have been an ocean separating Phelps from his rival after so many one-knuckle margins between the two. Phelps was also beaten by Brazilian Thiago Pereira and 17-year-old Kosuke Hagino of Japan, who won their first Olympic medals and looked happy but sheepish on the podium.
The hyped, anticipated and relentlessly previewed duel in the pool between Phelps and Lochte did not materialize. Therefore, the opening day of swimming was as much about Phelps’ excruciating loss as Lochte’s dominating victory.
The succession had been foretold by Lochte, who grew up in Daytona Beach, was coached by his parents (his mother is a Cuban exile), starred for Florida and still trains in Gainesville under Gregg Troy. Lochte graciously learned his lessons as Phelps became the most famous, successful and wealthy swimmer in history. Lochte politely waited his turn as Phelps won a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games.
But then he redoubled his work. Like Usain Bolt, he trains harder than he lets on. He likes to surf and skateboard and shoot hoops. But he’s not the flaky dude he appears to be sometimes, such as Saturday during his news conference, when, after everyone was asked to turn off their cellphones, his rang with the sound of rap music.
“I have so many ringtones,” he said when asked who the rapper was. “Probably Lil Wayne.”
But don’t let Lochte fool you. He was determined not to swim in Phelps’ wake for his entire career. He changed his diet. He molded his physique into one in demand by modeling agencies and magazine editors. He announced his superiority with five golds at the 2011 world championships.
“I’m ready to rock this Olympics,” Lochte said. “I feel it inside my gut: This is my year. I know it because I’ve worked my butt off.”
Just as Phelps is the reason Lochte got better, Lochte, 27, is the reason Phelps, 27, came back for his fourth Olympics. What does one do for an encore after winning eight gold medals? Lochte provided the challenge Phelps needed. Given how much Phelps loathes losing, Lochte and the rest of the competition better brace themselves. Phelps has indicated he will swim in six more events, including the 200IM against Lochte.
But Phelps looked curiously stale in his opener. Usually able to hit his goals to a hundredth of a second, his time of 4:09.28 was three seconds off his plan and well off his world record of 4:03.84.
Coach Bob Bowman implied the sluggish performance might have been the culmination of the past four years of initially indifferent training by Phelps, who found himself in a malaise after Beijing. Prior to the 2008 Olympics, Phelps had trained every single day for six years in a row. He was tired. He was bored. He had been looking at life through goggles for a long time. Who could blame him for wanting a different perspective?
But Lochte revived his drive.
“After 2008 I just didn’t want to put in the work; it didn’t excite me,” he said. Lochte began beating him consistently. “Last year the losing really got to me.”
Phelps barely qualified for the final to take the last slot, which stuck him outside in Lane 8. In the final, Lochte swam the first 50 meters of butterfly too hard, but kept glancing at the scoreboard and got the race under control while Phelps had a weak breaststroke leg and faded in the freestyle.
“The lane draw had nothing to do with me coming in fourth; it was just a crappy race,” Phelps said. “I felt fine for the first 200 and spent the last 100 struggling. I have been better prepared. It was a very frustrating finish.”
Bowman couldn’t pinpoint why Phelps’ time was slower than his trials time, which would have been good enough for a silver.
“I was surprised — not pleasantly,” Bowman said. “We have to put it behind us. He told me it was horrible and it was. He accurately assessed it.”
Lochte’s time of 4:05.18 was the second-fastest in Olympic history. He thanked Phelps for being his friend, rival and example.
“A lot of people say Michael is inhuman but he’s just like all of us,” Lochte said. “He trains harder, though, and he knows how to win.
“I saw him in the massage area after. He said he was proud of me, even though he was a little upset.”
They are two very different athletes — on the outside. Lochte believes this is his time; Phelps disagrees or he wouldn’t be in London. Their rivalry will make more waves before it’s over.