As Phelps reveled in his second gold of the meet and U.S. breaststroker Rebecca Soni enjoyed a world record and gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke, Lochte finished his Olympic Games on Thursday determined to be upbeat, focusing on the number of medals he won, not their color.
Just more than an hour before, he had finished second to Phelps in his last event of these Games, the 200-meter individual medley, touching the wall in 1 minute 54.90 seconds to Phelps’s 1:54.27.
Thirty minutes before that, he got passed in the homestretch of the 200 backstroke, an event in which he had been reigning Olympic and world champion, by U.S. teammate Tyler Clary, who claimed a surprising gold in 1:53.41, and Japan’s Ryosuke Irie, who got silver in 1:53.78. Lochte got the bronze in 1:53.94.
“You always have big dreams in your head,” Clary said. “You hope you might pull off something like that. It has not even processed in my mind yet.”
Lochte, too, seemed unable to process what had occurred. He left the Aquatic Center with an impressive haul: two gold medals, two silvers and one bronze.
Yet that fell far from the six golds he sought. “A little bit above average,” he called it.
The Games’ biggest cover boy failed to live up to the hype, failed to live up even to his own bold predictions last week. He left London as he left Beijing in 2008: playing second fiddle to Phelps, who has won two golds and two silvers and has shots at two more medals.
“Whenever I step out on the blocks, obviously I always want to win,” Lochte said. “Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t. I can’t be too disappointed. I am coming home to my country with five Olympic medals.”
But the swimmer who dominated at last year’s world championships, winning five gold medals and one bronze, where was that guy? The first swimmer to break a world record in the post-Supersuit era last summer, where was he? In 2010, Lochte began to take over the sport, breaking through at the Pan Pacific Championships with six gold medals in four days.
Gregg Troy, Lochte’s personal coach and the U.S. Olympic team coach, rubbed his face with his hand when asked Thursday to explain what happened.
“It’s a tough program,” he said.
Troy noted that the grueling 400 individual medley took place on the first night of this meet, rather than the last day of last year’s world championships: “Not many people walked out with five medals. It’s way above average.”
The meet started on a high note, when Lochte ran away with the title in the 400 medley Saturday as Phelps took fourth. That night, Lochte had dinner with Troy, Phelps, Phelps’s coach Bob Bowman and two other U.S. coaches. He didn’t get to bed until 2 a.m., then swam in the 200 freestyle heats Sunday morning.
That was the day his struggles began. He blew the lead on the anchor leg of the 4x100 freestyle relay, getting passed by French star Yannick Agnel. On Monday, Agnel dominated the 200 freestyle as Lochte finished fourth in an event in which he was reigning world champion.
“I had a pretty rough couple of days,” Lochte reflected after helping the United States to victory in the 4x200 freestyle relay Tuesday. “I woke up [Tuesday] and I was myself — that happy-go-lucky guy. I think that’s what helped me.”
The happy-go-lucky thing didn’t seem to last. Lochte speculated he simply went out too fast in the races he lost, giving into the excitement of the moment. Lochte discounted fatigue and pressure, though he had admitted earlier this week he had “lost his confidence” after getting passed in the 4x100 relay.
It was “not pressure and not fatigue,” Lochte said. “I’ve done the training; I know it wasn’t fatigue. I don’t ever give into pressure. I just kind of go with the flow. Whatever happens, happens. I think it was just excitement.”
Lochte, who intends to compete through 2016, did go out fast: He led for the first 150 meters of the 200 backstroke, his first event. He made the final turn 0.12 of a second ahead of Clary and .23 ahead of Irie. Both, however, slid by in the waning meters.
“That was the perfect race I swam tonight,” Clary said. “It couldn’t have gone any better.”
After warming down in the diving well next to the competition pool, Lochte faced Phelps in an event Phelps had won in the previous two Olympic Games, but which Lochte had dominated recently.
On Thursday, Lochte closed hard on the freestyle leg, but he couldn’t catch up with a smooth-swimming Phelps.
Lochte is Phelps’s “toughest competitor, as tough as there is here,” Bowman said.
But now he’s done.
“I have to go into every swim meet, every Olympics, thinking it’s my time,” Lochte said. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be the same athlete I am today.”