LONDON -- You could see the cost of greatness Saturday night. Michael Phelps finished in fourth place, stared in disbelief at the scoreboard, tossed his swim cap to his left, pushed himself out of the cool water he's grown to despise and walked out of the Aquatics Centre with a live TV camera moving in front of him the entire way.
He twice stopped and politely answered a few questions from a large crowd of reporters -- many of whom, being honest, would not have been covering this 400-meter individual medley if not for Phelps.
How did this happen?
"Crappy race," Phelps said.
For the first time in this decade, Phelps did not have it in an Olympic event. When he settled for fifth in the 200-meter butterfly at the 2000 Sydney Games, he was 15, the youngest American Olympian and the future of American swimming.
The future is now, and, Phelps' rocky start to these 2012 Games notwithstanding, isn't it wonderful? Phelps has said his goal all along was to help turn the sport he grew up loving into a mainstream attraction. Sure enough, about 900 media members were around to witness and publicize American Ryan Lochte's finest hour.
Lochte, a blue-eyed and curly-haired Floridian, swam away with the 400 IM with a time of 4:05.18. This is unlikely to be his final gold medal in these Games, and he will be the first to tell you that.
"I've said this before, that this is my year," Lochte said.
"I know, because I've put in hard work. I've trained ... for four years, and I just feel it inside my gut."
The 400 IM is the ultimate test of swimming versatility and endurance. Once Lochte got going in the third stanza, the breaststroke, Phelps' chance at his third gold medal in a row in this event evaporated into the London gray.
Phelps appeared to be in prime position to earn a medal but lost his spot on the podium in the final 100 meters of freestyle to Japan's Kosuke Hagino. Phelps' time of 4:09.28 was a major disappointment considering his qualifying time of 4:07.89 at the U.S. Olympic trials. That time was second best to Lochte in the June trials.
Did Phelps get worse in the past month while training in the high altitude of Colorado Springs, Colo., at the Olympic Training Center? Or was Saturday a poorly timed aberration?
A case could be made for the latter. Phelps snoozed through the preliminary heat Saturday morning, squeezing in the eighth and final spot with a 4:13.33. It was a bad day for a guy who has had plenty of them swimming lap after lap in the safety of the pool at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, but not too many with the cameras on and an Olympic medal hanging in the balance.
"I was lucky to get in the final," Phelps said.
Still, this was Phelps swimming in the Olympics. Saturday night, anything felt possible, even out of the dreaded Lane 8, where only three swimmers have won a gold medal in history. This was one of the hottest tickets of the Games, and those who paid handsomely to get in the door were hoping Phelps had just been going out of his way to build up the drama.
High in the Aquatics Centre, San Diego natives Willy Ayyad and his son, Hunter, 12, went all-in on Phelps over Lochte.
"We're big Michael Phelps fans," Ayyad said. "We bet my wife and daughter five bucks that Phelps is going to win over Lochte. We're pulling for him. It's going to be close."
Adam Letheby and his wife, Andrea, came to London from Lincoln, Neb., to watch Phelps pursue the all-time record of 18 medals. Adam, 26, wore an American flag button-down shirt, an American flag bandana and some Phelps-motivated facial hair he carved out earlier in the day.
"This is my Phelps stash," Adam said, referring to his handlebar mustache.
When asked where Phelps stood in the pantheon of great athletes of his time, Adam said he would put him above Tiger Woods and LeBron James.
"I'm not a swimmer," Adam said.
"I'm a football fan. It's definitely a different sport, but it's a pretty big deal. It's basically watching history unfold."
"It's inspiring how dominant he is," Andrea said.
That air of invincibility is what Phelps' risked losing when he decided to return from a two-plus-year slumber and begin training hard to compete for London. After winning a record eight gold medals in Beijing, bumping his overall count to 14, he ignored the wishes of his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, and did his own thing. It wasn't too long before Phelps was photographed at a college party with a bong, which led to a loss of his Kellogg's sponsorship and a public admonishment from USA Swimming.
While Phelps was off enjoying his newfound freedom, Lochte was getting his act together. Lochte won his first individual gold medal at Beijing in the 200-meter backstroke.
But that was not against Phelps, whom Lochte was 0-2 against in their medley matchups in Beijing.
Lochte and Phelps are both 27, but Lochte is 11 months older, and in comparison to his American teammate, all he could hope for was to be a late bloomer.
Lochte had always been more of a free spirit than Phelps, choosing to skateboard and surf in his spare time from swimming. But Beijing taught him something.
"I was young," Lochte said.
"And I changed some things after Beijing in my diet, in my training, and I've just gotten a lot faster since then. If I had known that years ago, I think Beijing would have been a different scenario for me. But you live and learn."
Lochte and Phelps were heading in different directions. Lochte began routinely beating Phelps post-Beijing, which contributed to Phelps' desire to get back in the water.
Still, the fact remains: Phelps didn't have to do this to himself one more time. He had more Olympic gold on his mantle than most athletes could fashion in their wildest imaginations, more world records and more worldwide adulation. His very existence as a transcendent star had created the same opportunity for Lochte.
After Saturday, Phelps still had 10 more gold medals than Lochte's four, and he's got six more chances to add to his collection: the 200 IM, the 200 and 100 butterfly and the three relays.
It will be up to him to recover from this letdown and prove that his efforts to get ready for London were worthwhile.
This is likely to be Phelps' last Olympics. One day in, it appears he's already lost more than a race.
"A lot of people say Michael is inhuman." Lochte said.
"But you know what, he's just like all of us."olympics - sportsother