LONDON — The victory was so clear-cut, so utterly dominant, it looked a little bit like how Michael Phelps used to do it. Ryan Lochte turned what was supposed to be a dramatic showdown with Phelps in the 400-meter individual medley on Saturday night into a surprising solo act.
Surprising, that is, to everyone but Lochte, who crushed Phelps and the entire field on the opening night of the Olympic swimming competition, then pronounced himself ready for more of the same over the next eight days.
As Phelps forlornly tried to figure out what happened, how he finished out of the medals in an Olympic race for the first time since the 2000 Summer Games, Lochte matter-of-factly announced himself the boy of the summer.
“This is my year,” Lochte said. “I feel it. I’ve put in the hard work. I’ve trained my butt off for four years. I just feel it inside my gut. This is my year. There’s no better way to start than by getting a gold.”
Lochte, who touched the wall in 4 minutes 5.18 seconds, was so dominant he had time to turn around, examine the scoreboard and then watch the earnest battle for second and third that ensued behind him. Brazil’s Thiago Pereira claimed the silver in 4:08.86 – 3.68 seconds behind Lochte — and Japan’s Kosuke Hagino got the bronze in 4:08.94. Phelps finished in 4:09.28.
After the race, Phelps yanked off his cap and goggles, stunned. Having claimed the last qualifying spot for the final with a strangely slow swim in the morning heats, Phelps had gotten stuck out in Lane 8, but he said the distant lane wasn’t his problem.
Neither Phelps nor his longtime coach Bob Bowman could find an explanation for the result, which was about two seconds slower than Phelps swam at the U.S. Olympic trials in July and more than five seconds slower than the world record he set in 2008. Bowman said he thought his star pupil would go three to four seconds faster.
“It’s pretty upsetting,” Phelps said. “I think the biggest thing now is trying to get past this and move forward. . . . I have a bunch of other races. Hopefully, I will finish better than I started.”
Said Bowman: “He said it was horrible, and it was. That was an accurate assessment.”
The race had been billed as a historic clash between the two best performers the event has ever seen. Phelps had won the previous two Olympic titles in the event; Lochte had claimed the last two world championships. Phelps had dominated in the event before 2008; Lochte has owned it since, including at the recent U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha, when he beat Phelps for the only time in three head-to-head finals.
Lochte hasn’t lost a major competition in the 400 medley since 2008, but Phelps has never failed to show up when it really mattered. Lochte raised his arms to the crowd — which offered him a brief “U-S-A!” chant — before receiving his gold medal. Though he grinned and enjoyed the moment, he said he felt strange without Phelps nearby.
“It’s weird not having Michael with me on the medal stand,” Lochte said. “I’m really surprised that he didn’t medal, just because whenever Michael swims, he’s always on the medal stand no matter what.”
Earlier, Phelps nearly missed a chance even to swim in the night’s final. In the morning semifinal, he swam so conservatively he posted just the eighth-best time (3:13.33), clinching the last spot for the evening final by just .07.
Phelps chased down 2008 Olympic silver medalist Laszlo Cseh from Hungary during the freestyle leg of his heat, a crucial maneuver, as it turned out. Cseh posted the ninth-best time and got eliminated.
“A lot of people say Michael is inhuman,” Lochte said. “But you know what? He’s just like all of us, but he trains harder and he knows how to win. That’s what you have to learn. You’ve got to find ways to beat him.”
That’s what Lochte has done since Beijing, when he got bronze medals in both the 200 and 400 medley races as Phelps won two of his record eight gold medals. Lochte changed his diet. He adopted a workout regimen that involves throwing tires and pulling massive chains and, unlike Phelps, he never veered away from the sport.
As Phelps pondered whether he even wanted to swim in his fourth Olympic Games, Lochte, a seven-time Olympic medal winner, barely took a vacation, working harder than ever under his coach Gregg Troy at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Lochte said Phelps approached him after the race in the massage area of the Olympic swimming venue.
“He congratulated me, said ‘Way to go,’ ” Lochte said. “[He said,] ‘We haven’t lost the 400 IM for the USA in a long time, so way to keep it going.”
Lochte, who will face Phelps again in the 200 medley, said he expects the defeat to provide a significant jolt. Phelps could still contend for as many as six medals here — if Troy, also the U.S. Olympic team coach, places him on all three relays.
“Just by history, Phelps is good at shorter events,” Lochte said. “The next races, he’s going to light it up.”
Notes: The U.S. women’s 4x100 relay team, which featured 17-year-old star Missy Franklin, claimed a bronze medal as Australia won the gold and Netherlands the silver in Saturday’s final. Franklin posted the fastest relay leg (53.52), but the U.S. team of Franklin, Jessica Hardy, Lia Neal and Allison Schmitt finished 1.09 seconds behind the Aussies with a finish in 3.34.24. Natalie Coughlin, who swam in the morning heats of the relay, earned her 12th Olympic medal, tying Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson for the most among U.S. women. . . . Elizabeth Beisel won the silver in the women’s 400 individual medley, finishing behind China’s Ye Shiwen, who broke Stephanie Rice’s world record in the event. Ye finished in 4:28.43; Beisel came home in 4:31.27. . . . American Peter Vanderkaay got the bronze in the men’s 400 freestyle as China’s Sun Yang got the gold. Sun finished in 3:40.14 — just .07 off of Paul Biedermann’s world record — and Park Taehwan got second in 3:43.06. Vanderkaay finished in 3:44.69.
Photos: Scenes from the London Olympics