Column: Phelps proves human after all

The crowd at the Olympic Aquatics Centre arrived late, as if

they were trying to stall off the inevitable. Anyone with a prized

ticket to the first big showdown of the London Games had to know

Michael Phelps was in trouble earlier in the day when he barely

qualified for the final of the event he owns two gold medals

in.

That was a shocker, but what happened Saturday night in the

Olympic pool was simply mystifying. No self-respecting London

bookie would have even dared to lay odds that the greatest swimmer

in the world – no, make that the greatest swimmer ever – wouldn’t

even win as much as a bronze medal in his first race in these

games.

The great swimming showdown to open the Olympics was a giant

bust – unless, of course, your name is Ryan Lochte. The surfer dude

from Florida dominated the 400-meter individual medley from the

opening stroke, making an early case for himself as the face of

swimming in these games while thrashing a guy he never used to be

able to beat.

And in the process, Lochte may have shattered the Phelps

mystique once and for all.

Untouchable in Beijing. Oh, so human in London.

This wasn’t just a loss, it was a blowout. By the time Phelps

finally touched the wall in fourth place, Lochte had been resting

there for more than 4 seconds – an eternity in swimming.

What followed next was almost as revealing. While Lochte

celebrated, Phelps climbed slowly from the pool, like it was a

chore just to make it out. He then trudged off to answer a few

questions from reporters and try to figure out where it all went

wrong.

Worn out already, and six races still to go.

”It was just a crappy race,” Phelps said by way of explanation

”I felt fine the first 200, then I don’t know.”

Not surprising, if only because the athlete is always the last

one to know. At age 27 Phelps has a lot of mileage under his long

arms, a lot of history to have to live up to. He’s been swimming

for medals since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and seemed almost

giddy when he tweeted on Friday that he had finished his last

practice as a competitive swimmer.

Maybe he didn’t have the fire inside for training. Maybe he’s

starting to slow just a bit from the wear and tear.

Or maybe he just had what he claims he had – a bad day.

Lochte would be among those interested in finding out. He once

lost 17 straight races in the 200-meter individual medley to

Phelps, and the two meet Wednesday in that race in their only other

confrontation in the games.

”I’ll tell you what, it’s weird. It’s weird not having Michael

next to me on the medal stand,” Lochte said. ”Michael to me is

still one of the world’s greatest … and no matter what happens

he’ll go down as one of the world’s greatest.”

Phelps was always taking a chance that he might be swimming in

one Olympics too many, surely one 400-meter IM too many after

declaring four years ago that his win in that event would be his

last. The draw of these games was too much, though, with a chance

to add to his haul and become the all-time greatest medal winner in

Olympic history.

He’s got plenty of races left to do that, if things remain

according to plan. Six in all, and all he needs is three medals to

surpass the record of 18 won by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina.

There’s a chance he can even add to his total of 14 gold medals,

which is five more than the second-best number on the list.

”The biggest thing now is to try to look forward,” Phelps

said. ”I have a bunch of other races, and hopefully we can finish

a lot better than how we started.”

It’s not going to hurt his legacy if he doesn’t. That’s already

encased in gold, the six he won in Athens and the record eight he

grabbed in Beijing, when he set Olympic records almost every day.

He surpassed Mark Spitz there to claim the title of best swimmer

ever, and it’s going to be a long time, if ever, before someone

takes it from him.

Spitz took his seven medals and retired, content to make a

living off his brilliant performance in Munich. Phelps has made a

pretty good living himself, despite the fact he’s an introvert with

little charisma until the moment he gets into the water.

He came back for one last Olympics expecting great things

because, well, he’s always done great things. Aside from his first

Olympics – when he was a 15-year-old qualified in just one event –

he won medals in every Olympic race he had ever been in before

Saturday night. The total was both staggering and historic – 14

gold and two bronze in 16 races – so much so that he makes the

short list of any compilation of greatest Olympians ever.

That’s what made it so hard to watch for a crowd that, once it

arrived, was pumped for one of the hottest matchups of the games.

Phelps didn’t exactly flounder in the water, but he fell behind

early to Lochte and then was passed by two other swimmers before

finally finishing in 4:09.28, well off the world record of 4:03.84

he set in China.

It’s too early to declare him finished, too soon to say he’s

washed up. But there’s a crack in the facade, something that should

give hope to anyone competing against him over the next week.

”A lot of people say Michael is inhuman, but you know what?”

Lochte said. ”He’s just like all of us.”

He wasn’t in Beijing, hasn’t been for a long time.

All it took was one night at the pool in these Olympics to

change that.

—-

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated

Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or

http://twitter.com/timdahlbberg