LONDON: Is it a changing of the guard at the pool or a wake-up call for one of the most decorated Olympians ever?
Ryan Lochte thrashed Michael Phelps by more than 4 seconds in their first showdown of the London Games. Even more stunning: The 14-time gold medalist didn't win any medal for the first time since he was a scrawny 15-year-old competing in just one event at the 2000 Sydney Games.
"It's just really frustrating to start off on a bad note like this," Phelps said.
Lochte wasn't ready to throw Phelps on the scrap heap after he thoroughly dominated the 400-meter individual medley on the opening night of the eight-day swimming competition Saturday.
"The next races that he's in, he's going to light it up," Lochte said.
Lochte predicted that this would be his year, and on the first night of competition, appeared poised to make good on that promise. Phelps looked little like the swimmer he did four years ago when he won a record eight golds and eclipsed Mark Spitz's record, barely squeaking into the final and struggling to pull himself from the pool afterward.
Lochte savored his moment, popping in his grillz — diamond studded mouth jewelry — to accept his gold medal. But atop the podium, something felt different.
"It's weird not having Michael next to me," he 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 is planning to retire as soon as he finishes the last of his seven races in London. Before Saturday, he was 16-of-16 when it came to winning medals at the Olympics — 14 golds and two bronzes — since finishing fifth in the 200 butterfly in Sydney. He has plenty more chances to bring home medals from London. But the race was not the way he'd hoped to start off.
Phelps tossed in a real clunker in the 400 IM, a grueling event in which he was trying to become the first male swimmer to win the same individual event at three straight Olympics.
Instead, he fell behind right from the start in the butterfly, his trademark stroke. From there, it was all Lochte. He stretched his margin in the backstroke and breaststroke, then cruised to the gold in the freestyle, a good three body lengths ahead of the rest of the field.
Lochte touched in 4 minutes, 5.18 seconds to win with U.S. first lady Michelle Obama watching from the stands. Brazil's Thiago Pereira took the silver (4:08.86) and Japan's Kosuke Hagino (4:08.94) earned the bronze.
Phelps finished fourth in 4:09.28 — nearly 5 1/2 seconds off his world record from Beijing and not even as fast as he went during last month's U.S. trials.
"It was just a crappy race," he said. "It's pretty upsetting. The biggest thing now is to try to look forward. I have a bunch of other races and hopefully we can finish a lot better than how we started."
"He said it was horrible. It was," Phelps' coach Bob Bowman said. "He accurately assessed it."
Phelps has three more individual events in London, and likely all three relays. He remains two behind the most medals won by any Olympian, Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who won 18.
Elizabeth Beisel, who earned a silver in the women's 400 IM, noticed the difference in Phelps from four years ago. "But Michael is still Michael Phelps and nobody can take that away from him," she said.
If anything, the race proved Phelps is human after all.
"He's just like all of us," Lochte said.
Phelps and Lochte have one more showdown in London, in the 200 individual medley. The friendly rivals are likely to team up Sunday in the 4x100 freestyle relay. The exact lineup of the U.S. team was yet to be determined, but Lochte and Phelps have put themselves in the mix of candidates to swim the event in which Australia is heavily favored.
Outside of the Phelps-Lochte duel, China made a splash with two gold medals. Sixteen-year-old Ye Shiwen set a world record in the women's 400 IM — only the third mark to fall since high-tech bodysuits were banned at the end of 2009. She won in 4:28.43, breaking the mark of 4:29.45 by Australia's Stephanie Rice in Beijing. China's Li Xuanxu took the bronze.
Sun Yang flirted with a world record in the men's 400 freestyle. He took gold in 3:40.14, just missing the world mark set by Germany's Paul Biedermann in a rubberized suit three years ago. South Korea's Park Tae-hwan won silver in 3:42.06 after initially being disqualified for a false start in the prelims. That ruling was overturned by governing body FINA a couple of hours later on appeal. Peter Vanderkaay of the U.S. won the bronze.
Australia captured gold in the women's 400 freestyle relay with an Olympic record of 3:33.15, rallying to pass the Americans and hold off the fast-charging Netherlands.
The U.S. got off to a blistering start with Missy Franklin swimming leadoff under world-record pace, and the Americans were still ahead after Jessica Hardy went next. But the Australians rallied behind Brittany Elmslie on the third 100, and Melanie Schlanger held on at the end, with Ranomi Kromowidjojo closing fast to give the Netherlands a silver in 3:33.79.
The other members of the winning team were Alicia Coutts and Cate Campbell.
The Americans slipped to the bronze in 3:34.24, but that was still good enough to give Natalie Coughlin the 12th medal of her career, tying Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson as the most decorated U.S. female Olympians in any sport.
Coughlin swam in the morning prelims, then was reduced to the role of cheerleader in the evening as the Americans went with Franklin, Hardy, Lia Neal and Allison Schmitt.
"I really have no idea what to think of it so far," Coughlin said. "I'll have to take it all in tonight. I'm very proud of it, but I've never been on a morning relay before."