LONDON -- We already knew Michael Phelps wouldn't duplicate what he did in Beijing. It was an impossible feat that Phelps accomplished in 2008 in winning eight gold medals.
It had never been done before and will never be done again.
He gave up his attempt even to try on the last day of the U.S. Olympic Trials when he withdrew from the 200-meter freestyle, a race he had won in Omaha and a race he owns the second-fastest time in the world this year. He cited his age (27) and the need for increased recovery time, but he also likely knew he had no chance for a repeat of Beijing.
Seven medals would have to be enough this time. Or so we assumed.
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Phelps' fourth-place finish Saturday in the 400 individual medley at the Aquatics Centre was every bit as surprising as his eight victories in Beijing. He was beaten by rival Ryan Lochte, who won his second career individual gold medal, Brazil's Thiago Pereira and Japan's Kosuke Hagino.
"It was just a crappy race," Phelps said. "I felt fine like the first 200, then I don't know. I couldn't really go the last 100. ... They just swam a better race than me, swam a smarter race than me and were more prepared. That's why they're on the medal stand."
Even though Phelps won the past two Olympic gold medals in the event, Lochte was the favorite. Lochte is the defending world champion in the 400 IM, and Lochte won the U.S. Olympic Trials in the event.
But it was inconceivable to think Phelps wouldn't medal. He had, after all, medaled in his past 16 Olympic races, with 14 golds and two bronze medals. And his season-best 4:07.89 in the 400 IM, which he posted in Omaha, was second-best in the world this year and would have been good enough for the silver Saturday. Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, said afterward he expected Phelps to swim "in the 4:06-4:07 range."
Instead, Phelps, who barely made the final with a 4:13.33 in the morning heats, touched in 4:09.28.
"I'm surprised, and not pleasantly," Bowman said. "... He said it was horrible. It was. He accurately assessed it."
On what should have been Lochte's crowning achievement, he still was overshadowed by Phelps. Instead of basking in the glow of winning the U.S.'s first gold medal of the London Games, Lochte was hounded with questions about Phelps.
It may not have been intended -- only Lochte knows for sure -- but he seemed to take a subtle swipe at Phelps, whose work ethic recently was questioned by teammate Tyler Clary. Phelps admittedly tempered his training after Beijing, taking a year and a half to live life outside the pool.
"I've said this before that this is my year," Lochte said. "I know and I feel it, just because I put in hard work. I've trained my butt off for four years, and I just feel inside my gut that this is my year, and there is no better way to start this Olympics than with my first race getting a gold. It definitely gives me a lot more energy, and I'm going to carry this atmosphere I created tonight throughout the Games."
Phelps obviously no longer is invincible. Phelps is "human," as Lochte showed in his race and reiterated in his post-race comments.
Phelps still has the 100 fly, 200 IM and 200 fly, and he is a favorite in all three. (He just no longer is THE favorite.) Phelps also has the three relays, beginning with tonight's 4x100 free.
Six medals, the same number he won in Athens eight years ago, will have to be enough now. Three will make him the most decorated Olympian of all time.
It's not as good as eight, or seven even.
"Frustrating," Phelps said. "That's all I can say. Pretty upsetting. But I think the biggest thing now is to just try to get past this and move forward. I have a lot of other races, and hopefully we can finish a lot better than we started."
Phelps always has been known for his finishing kick. We'll find out if he still has it.