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Hard to say if Michael Phelps’ 4th place signals downturn or bad day

Michael Phelps struggled fourth-place finish 400-meter individual medley. | Adam Pretty~Getty Images

Michael Phelps struggled to a fourth-place finish in the 400-meter individual medley. | Adam Pretty~Getty Images

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Updated: August 30, 2012 6:33AM



LONDON — Everything falls.

The reaper gets it all, even if the reaping takes only that micro-dot of super stuff that makes an athlete the best.

Michael Phelps learned as much in the 400-meter individual medley Saturday at the Olympic Aquatics Center. Once the best in the world at this most varied and grueling event — and still the world-record holder in it — Phelps looked like a dolphin with bad fins as he finished fourth in an event he used to rule.

Indeed, Phelps barely had made the final, qualifying eighth. The thought was the old warrior was just a tad too casual in the prelims. No big deal.

But no. Swimming in Lane 8, with bad visuals, backwash and bad karma, was the final insult
that helped grease the collapse. Phelps said the lane didn’t matter, but it had to.

‘‘I honestly don’t think it was a fitness issue,’’ coach Bob Bowman said.

So it must have been age? Desire? Bad luck? Youth? (Bronze medalist Kosuke Hagino is just 18, you know, nine years younger than Phelps.)

Or so many things.

Ryan Lochte, also known as ‘‘Mr. Cuteness’’ and/or ‘‘Mr. Abdominal’’ to his legions of online female worshippers, won the event. He was already better than Phelps in the 400 IM, having beaten him by .83 seconds at the U.S. Olympic trials last month in Omaha, Neb. Back then, Phelps said he was OK with finishing second to his rival.

‘‘I was very pleased with that,’’ Phelps said of finishing in 4 minutes, 7.89 seconds in the trials. ‘‘I said if I went 4:07, I’d be happy.’’

But he didn’t improve in the weeks since, finishing in 4:09.28, about four body lengths behind Lochte (4:05.18). The reigning two-time Olympic champ had a chance to make swimming history by winning the same event in three consecutive Olympics. But he is, after all, human, not mythical fish.

Phelps being in an event and not making it to the medal stand was shocking, unprecedented. The image of Sir Paul McCartney not making it to the top in a 1960s pop-song contest came to mind.

Perplexed after his semifinal race, in which he finished almost 10 seconds off his best time, Phelps still seemed in good spirits before the final.

‘‘I just want to get in the water and race,’’ he said in the afternoon, adding that he would ‘‘have fun, and that’s what I’ll do.’’

Kobe Bryant, the old man on the U.S. men’s basketball team, the one favored to win it all, mentioned to me Friday that one of his main goals in London was to watch other Olympic sports and ‘‘see how great athletes do in that moment.’’

‘‘We don’t get to see that because we’re always in that moment,’’ he said.

One of the greats Bryant wanted to watch was Phelps. I don’t know if the 33-year old basketball star was at the Aquatics Center for this race, but if he was, he should be hopeful Phelps downfall won’t be a precursor for his own.

Nor is it that Phelps is purely antique. He’s 27, the same age as Lochte. Actually, Lochte is nearly a year older, turning 28 on Friday.

‘‘I’m ready to rock this Olympics,’’ said Lochte, who always seems to be bare-midriffed.

Lochte has broken his ankle three times while skateboarding and hurt his knee once while break dancing in his house. As an article in Men’s Journal noted, to be a superstar, ‘‘All Ryan Lochte has to do now is keep his sh-- together.’’

That can’t be pleasant news to the hypercompetitive Phelps. Still, Phelps has six more events to prove he’s not washed up, so this might have been merely the concession of a single difficult event to another gifted water freak. Maybe Bowman and Phelps are arguing even now about what went wrong with the swimmer’s taper, his turns or his . . . anything.

‘‘It was just a crappy race,’’ Phelps said in explanation.

Maybe so.

Nor does the one failure change the fact that Phelps is the greatest, most exhilarating swimmer since Mark Spitz and certainly the best medal-winner of all time.

And there’s no way his career is over, right? Phelps long has said this Olympics will be it for him. But he didn’t mean it would end in midstroke.

Did he?



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