Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Ryan Lochte stakes his claim to Michael Phelps' throne

LONDON — It can be a messy thing, this deposing of kings.

These things can be ugly, undignified and occasionally bloody. They can happen suddenly, and they can make the new ruler look ruthless and the old one look tired. Just like that, a new king is being crowned, and the old one is left in his wake.

Once, it was Edward II who was overthrown.

Saturday, it might have happened to Michael Phelps.

At least that was how it looked as Ryan Lochte staked his claim to the throne. For four seconds — a lifetime in swimming — Lochte hung on the pool wall in victory as Phelps finished up a slow, uninspired 400 individual medley. Lochte, the former Florida Gator standout from Daytona Beach, could have taken his gold medal and had it engraved before Phelps finished those final 20 feet.

This was the showdown everyone had been talking about for months? This was the duel in the pool that had everyone buzzing? Ha. This looked more like a transfer of power. One day after the London Olympics lit the torch, Phelps passed it.

"I've said this before: This is my year," Lochte said. "I know it, and I feel it. I've put in hard work. I've trained my butt off for four years. I just feel inside my gut that this is my year."

It has been a long time since someone left Phelps that far behind in the Olympics. Phelps had not finished anywhere but first in an individual Olympic race for seven years, 11 months and 12 days, and even then, he did not look this powerless. The last time he swam in the Olympics and failed to medal was 11 years and 312 days ago. He had won back-to-back golds in the Olympics in the 400 IM.

"It felt weird not to have Phelps beside me on the medal stand," Lochte said. "When Michael races, he always ends up on the medal stand no matter what."

Not this time. This was like watching an anticipated heavyweight boxing match end with a first-round knockout. It was extraordinary versus ordinary.

If Phelps had lost by a fraction of a second, if he had been out-touched at the end, it would have been one thing. Lochte is a hungrier swimmer, and if you judge from results since the last Olympics, the more accomplished one. But who expected Lochte to beat Phelps so badly it looked like a motorboat pulling a skier?

For Phelps, that had to be the disappointing part of the race. He was never in it. He did not look like the swimmer who had dominated the sport for so long. Worst of all, he did not look like an athlete destined to switch success back on during these Games.

"It was just a crappy race," said Phelps, who looked a little dazed himself by the results. "I couldn't really go in the last 100 meters. (The other swimmers) just swam a better race than me, a smarter race than me and were more prepared."

When Lochte was asked about Phelps, he kept stressing that he thought Phelps had given it "110 percent." On the other hand, if Lochte beat Phelps this easily, why should anyone think their next encounter — the 200 IM on Thursday — will be any different?

"The 400 IM is one of the hardest events in swimming," Lochte said. "Phelps is good at shorter events. I'll tell you this: The next races he's in, he's going to light it up."

We'll see. Today more doubts are hanging over Phelps than at any point in his career.

Before this, Phelps had been too good for doubts. No, he didn't train hard for the two years after Beijing … but he was Phelps the Invincible. Everyone figured that once the cameras started rolling and the medals were being given out, Phelps would flip the switch and be great again.

In sports, that is a hard thing to do. When someone has accomplished as much as Phelps, they do not battle age alone. They battle accomplishment. The more an athlete has succeeded, the harder it is to go to work on those early mornings, and the easier it is to stay late at the party.

This month, teammate Tyler Clary suggested that Phelps didn't train as hard as others, that he was getting by on talent. After this, maybe he had a point. Maybe gathering himself and starting all over was too much to ask of Phelps.

"It's a fitness issue over what he hasn't done for four years," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach. "I'm surprised … not in a good way. He certainly didn't get by on talent (Saturday). He said it was horrible … and it was."

Even Phelps admitted he was lucky to reach the final. Seven swimmers were faster than he was in the heats. Bowman suggested it didn't look as if he was trying hard. When is the last time anyone said that about Phelps?

Oh, Phelps will still go home with a few medals. He has the relays ahead. He has two races in the butterfly, his most dominant stroke. His legacy is secure.

For now, however, it is Lochte, dragon slayer, who rules the pool.

From the look of it, he does not plan to abdicate.

Gary Shelton is in London to cover his 10th Olympic Games for the Times. Follow his experiences on Twitter at @Gary_Shelton, through his photo feed #londongary on Instagram, and through his daily columns in the Times.


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