Ryan Lochte's lofty gold-medal expectations completely crumbled Thursday in London. The heralded U.S. swimmer failed to maintain momentum after a brilliant beginning to his 2012 Olympic odyssey, suffering a series of disappointments throughout his sizable slate of races.
Instead of walking away from the Summer Games having laid claim to being the World’s Best Swimmer, Lochte and his legion of fans have to already be asking themselves a much different question—how did it all fall apart so fast?
An eventful evening in the pool presented Lochte with an opportunity to defend gold in a race he's owned (the 200-meter backstroke) and ruin rival Michael Phelps' quest for yet another piece of Olympic history, this time in the 200-meter individual medley.
Ultimately, Lochte settled for second- and third-place finishes, forced to watch fellow Americans bask in the glow of Olympic gold. One day shy of his birthday, the soon-to-be 28-year-old simply couldn't carry the weight of escalated expectations to the top of the awards podium.
Bronze and silver never seemed so substandard.
Lochte's underwhelming evening began in the 200-meter backstroke. The Floridian's first Olympic gold medal came in the event at the 2008 Beijing Games, where he upended reigning event champion Aaron Peirsol and powered his way to a world-record performance.
"The 200 back is probably one of the hardest events known to swimming," Lochte told NBCOlympics.com. "It just takes all your legs out of you. Being able to come up and step up on the blocks and race like Michael Phelps, it's definitely a challenge, but I'm up for it."
Lochte shot off the starting block in Thursday's event final as the race's reigning world champion and Olympic record holder. Less than two minutes later, neither of those titles still applied.
U.S. teammate Tyler Clary surged to a first-place finish at 1 minute, 53.41 seconds, eclipsing Lochte's 2008 time (1:53.91). The defending gold medalist settled for third place behind Japan's Ryosuke Irie.
Lochte returned to the locker room with little time to prepare for his next challenge. The 200 IM final began just 31 minutes after the conclusion of Clary's win in backstroke.
Ever since Lochte unveiled his 2012 Olympic race schedule, there have been concerns about his ability to take on two grueling finals in such a short span. His father, Steve, who is a respected swim coach, wondered how the quick transition would affect his son.
"Here at the Olympics, they don't allow you to go and warm down, so Ryan has to go through the media tunnel (after the 200 back) where he'll get asked questions, have pictures taken and things like that," Steve Lochte told The Daytona Beach News-Journal. "Those 23 minutes (before returning to the pool deck for the 200 IM), he's not going to be able to rest. He's basically going to get out of the pool, go and talk, and head back on the pool deck and race again. And, he'll be racing Michael (Phelps)."
Phelps, two days removed from solidifying his spot as the most decorated Olympian of all time, waited for an opportunity for revenge after an embarrassing 400 IM final. Lochte cruised to gold in the event on Saturday, finishing three seconds ahead of anyone else, and more than four seconds ahead of Phelps.
Many called it a changing of the guard on the global swimming mountaintop. Lochte certainly seemed to buy into that notion.
"This is my year," Lochte told the Associated Press (via ESPN), while wearing his custom made grill (mouth jewelery) during the post-race award ceremony. "I know it and I feel it, because I've put in hard work. I've trained my butt off for four years...and there's no better way to start this Olympics off than getting gold."
It's the only gold medal he earned in four individual events. Phelps made sure of that in their final Olympic showdown.
Lochte, who has spent most of his career lurking in Phelps' shadow, couldn't duplicate the 400 IM performance. Phelps built a half-body-length lead heading into the final 50 meters of the 200 IM and held off a charging Lochte, who placed second.
Phelps wore a wide grin in the aftermath of his 20th medal-winning performance (16 of the golden variety). He became just the third swimmer in history to win the same event in three consecutive Olympic Games.
Lochte bobbed in the water with a stare that seemed to convey more puzzlement than disappointment. Surely he never would've thought that his first highlight (the 400-meter IM) of these Summer Games would prove to be his only opportunity to climb out of the pool as an individual gold-medal winner.
In London, we've seen Lochte secure two gold medals (400 IM and 4x200 relay), two silver (200 IM, 4x100 relay), a bronze (200-meter backstroke) and a fourth place in the 200-meter freestyle. Surely, those achievements are nothing to sneeze at, and his career Olympic-medal count has climbed to 11 (five gold, three silver, three bronze).
But for a superstar following in the footsteps of Phelps' 2008 performance (eight events, eight gold medals) and outwardly appearing to consider himself the heir apparent, today's results left more to be desired. Lochte, the two-time defending FINA Male Swimmer of the Year, is still among the greatest American swimmers we've seen, and he happens to be competing alongside the world's most dominant performer to ever plunge into a pool.
Lochte began the London Games with the look of America's next golden boy. And although he earned quite a medal haul, Thursday's competitions confirm that he simply isn't quite golden enough to take up that mantle.