The reign is over.
What we got instead was a veritable disaster for the former gold medalist.
Trouble was brewing when Michael Phelps barely qualified for the 400 IM final. With seven events on the docket, it should have come as no surprise that Phelps was conserving energy. He was almost too nonchalant in his qualifying heat, however, barely getting into the final just 0.07 seconds ahead of the ninth-place finisher.
As it turns out, it was simply a sign of things to come.
Not only did Lochte completely blow Phelps and the competition away in near world-record time, but the 14-time gold medalist was shut out of the podium entirely, finishing fourth in the final. Phelps not only failed to make history as the first three-time winner of a single event, he got off to a shockingly poor start with six events to go.
Rumblings of Phelps' lack of dedication have dogged since the end of the Beijing Games. He had fallen off considerably, giving way to Lochte as the new 400 IM Olympic champion ascended to the top of men's swimming.
Rumors of his demise appeared to have been greatly exaggerated as he seemingly allayed concerns after a strong showing at the U.S. Olympic trials, seesawing victories with Lochte while qualifying for eight events. He ultimately pared his schedule down to seven so that he would not burn himself out, but that may not have been enough.
Maybe Phelps should have bowed out entirely.
If he was not going to take the London Games seriously, Phelps should have given way to other hungry swimmers. He is already the most decorated American and second-most Olympian of all time. Did he need to come back if he did not truly want it?
This should take nothing away from Lochte, who had a fantastic race and was happy with his performance (via Doug Lesmerises on Cleveland.com):
“Going into these Games I knew I was capable of getting the win,” Lochte said. “So I'm happy I was able to do that. I heard the fans screaming all through the whole race.”
Per Lesmerises, Phelps would later call it a "crappy race," but this disappointment goes much deeper than that.
Fellow swimmer Tyler Clary was prescient in his criticism of Phelps after the trials (via Jim Alexander of the Press Enterprise):
“I saw a real lack of preparation (from) him,” Clary said during an interview at the pool here where he trains.
“Basically, he was a swimmer that didn’t want to be there,” Clary said of Phelps. “They can talk about all of these goals and plans and preparation they have. I saw it. I know. It’s different. And I saw somebody that has basically been asking to get beat for the longest time.”
Those words could hardly ring truer today.
Of course what could we reasonably expect from an athlete who has been plotting retirement for years and recently expressed his disdain for the sport that made him famous? If Phelps really was sick of the water before he even started his Olympic run, he should have not begun it at all.