Not-so-great start for Michael Phelps


LONDON -- So perhaps we all got a bit ahead of ourselves. Perhaps the billboards, articles and interviews were a bit much. Or maybe they all should have just come with an asterisk.

Because that Saturday night 400-meter individual medley showdown between Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps the world has been hyping for months? It came within seven hundredths of a second of never happening. That's how close Phelps came to not qualifying for the final.

Phelps and coach Bob Bowman have been raving all week about how strong Phelps looked in training, but his 4:13.33 time barely edged out Hungary's Laszlo Cseh, the 2008 silver medalist, and sent Phelps to the last spot of the 400 IM final.

Lochte, who appeared to coast for the last 25 meters, finished second in his heat and third overall, with a time of 4:12.35.

But the story was Phelps almost starting his last Olympics in disastrous fashion.

"I don't know," Phelps said after his swim. "That one didn't feel too good. I think the only thing that matters is getting a spot. You can't win the gold medal in the morning."

Phelps' comments came before the final heat had finished. At the time, he said he thought he would be seeded fourth or fifth in the final. Instead, he is seeded eighth and will swim out of the dreaded Lane 8. Most swimmers will tell you it's far more challenging to win a race from the outside lanes as the water is less smooth and you're unable to see most of the top competition. That's why top-seeded swimmers are usually in Lanes 4 and 5.

But don't think for a minute that Lochte or top-seeded Kosuke Hagino (4:10.01) from Japan will overlook Phelps.

"You know what, it's hard, it's a tough field," Lochte said after his heat. "But he's in, so you can't count him out. Even though he just squeaked in eighth place, he's a racer. We're going to do everything we can to go 1-2 tonight."

Not since 1992 has an American man not stood atop the medal podium in the 400 IM. And in the history of the event, dating back to 1964, the U.S. has failed to finish in one of the top two spots just once, in 1984.

Phelps could become the first swimmer in history to win gold in the same event in three straight Olympics, but that now appears to be a long shot. (Japan's Kosuke Kitajima, who finished with the second-fastest preliminary time in the 100 breaststroke Saturday morning has to be considered the favorite to accomplish that feat in the final of the event Sunday night.)

One theory: Swimming stroke-for-stroke with defending silver medalist Cseh, who was in the lane next to him, Phelps could have had a false sense of confidence that he was OK timewise, not realizing the slower pace. Phelps trailed Cseh going into the final 100 meters but caught him during the freestyle segment to win his heat. If he hadn't, we really would have had an opening day shocker.

"I don't know," Phelps said. "I just wanted to try to get some good underwaters, get some good turns, carry my speed. A final spot is a final spot."

Lochte was equally unhappy with his results. "It didn't feel so good, but that was my first race," he said. "My first race is always my worst. I'm glad I got the cobwebs out."

One American who didn't have any trouble getting a spot in the next round of her event was Dana Vollmer, who set an Olympic and American record with a time of 56.25 in the 100 butterfly prelims. At the Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., Vollmer said she has her eyes set on becoming the first woman to swim the 100 fly in less than 56 seconds, and it appears that goal might become a reality. Vollmer was 0.66 seconds under world-record pace at the turn. She'll swim in the semis of the event Saturday night, and the finals are scheduled for Sunday night.

"I'm always more nervous for my first swim than the rest," she said. "To start off that fast is really a confidence booster."