ATHENS, Aug. 15 -- The sky was black and the strange summer wind was gusting out of the north as Michael Phelps trudged wearily from the Olympic pool Sunday, looking stunned by his encounter with defeat.
"It sorta hurts," he said, his eyes wide with amazement.
South Africa's 400-meter relay team (counterclockwise from left: Lyndon Ferns, Ryk Neethling, Roland Schoeman and Darian Townsend) is pumped after surprising victory, only the second time U.S. didn't win the event.
(Anja Niedringhaus -- AP)
"We wanted to win," he said. "But this is all we had, and these were the four fastest guys we had."
It was, indeed, hard to explain. One night after the Baltimore County superstar smashed a world record and launched the high-flying U.S. male swimmers on a trajectory toward Olympic greatness, the team suffered a crushing defeat in a key relay.
The 400-meter relay team came in a dismal third behind a team from South Africa, and one from the Netherlands. It was only the second time in Olympic history that the U.S. had lost the race, and it did so despite Phelps, 19, and three more of the country's most celebrated swimmers.
The loss was also a setback in Phelps's much-publicized Olympic gold medal odyssey. He was entered in five individual events, and hoped to participate in the three swimming relays, which gave him a chance to win eight gold medals.
He now cannot win eight, which would have been a record. And if he fails in the tough 200-meter freestyle final Monday night, an event in which he qualified third Sunday, he won't hit the jackpot mark of seven, either.
His chief sponsor, Speedo, has offered him a $1 million bonus if he wins seven gold medals, which would tie the record set by Mark Spitz at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
But U.S. Coach Eddie Reese said that Phelps is not swimming for the money.
"If it happens, it happens," Reese said. "I honestly don't believe that's on his mind here. . . . He is really a racer. He's really a sportsman. . . . He will not miss a beat if he doesn't get seven gold medals."
Phelps's agent, Peter Carlisle, said Saturday that even if Phelps falls short of the bonus, his multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract with Speedo is a sort of consolation prize that will reward him amply for almost anything else he achieves here.
Money aside, Phelps and his teammates were rocked by Sunday's relay loss, according to Reese, who wiped tears from his eyes as he addressed reporters at poolside.
The race was lost at the outset when Ian Crocker, 21, who holds the world record in the 100-meter butterfly, inexplicably swam a dreadful first leg, leaving the U.S. team in last place at the end of the first 100 meters.
Reese said Crocker had been suffering from a sore throat for three days, and hadn't wanted to take antibiotics for fear that it might affect his performance. But he said Crocker felt "fine" before the race.
"He is very sensitive about" the loss, Reese said of Crocker. "When he does something like that on a relay and there's more people involved than just himself, it's going to bother him for a while."
Reese said it was Crocker's first Olympic swim. "There just had to be something wrong." Crocker, thoughtful and soft-spoken, is scheduled to swim against Phelps in the 100 butterfly Thursday and Friday.
The only consolation for the Americans on Sunday was that the potent Australian relay team, anchored by world record holder Ian Thorpe, finished sixth. Many experts believed the race would be a battle between the Americans and the Australians.
Crocker, a Maine native who trained under Reese at the University of Texas, swam the first 100-meter leg in a dismal 50.05 seconds, a time that Reese said later he found unbelievable.
Phelps, who holds three world records, swam the second leg in 48.74 seconds, battling into sixth place, and Neil Walker, 28, from Verona, Wis., reached third place with a time of 47.97 seconds.
Jason Lezak, 28, of Irvine, Calif., swimming the anchor leg, said later that he tried to make up the distance too fast and ran out of gas at the end. His time was 47.86 seconds.
U.S. coaches said falling behind at the start is deadly in this type of race. "The waves, in this event, when you get behind, are really impossible to get through," said Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, an assistant coach on the men's Olympic team.
Bowman said Phelps was placed in the second slot because he has an excellent underwater run after his starts. "Unfortunately . . . when he came up, he was in the waves," Bowman said.
Phelps was coming off the stunning first act of his eight-day Olympic performance Saturday night, in which he won the 400-meter individual medley, broke the world record in the event and brought home the first U.S. gold medal of the games.
He was delirious with joy after the race.
"I was pretty tired after last night," he said Sunday. "I didn't get to bed until after midnight."
Experts had suggested that winning his first race in such a fashion might help propel him through the rest of his arduous program. And Phelps hoped his win would energize the rest of the team.
Phelps competes in a 200-meter butterfly heat Monday morning, followed by the final of the 200-meter freestyle Monday night, followed by the semifinals of the 200-meter butterfly 45 minutes after the freestyle.
Neither he nor Crocker appeared at the post-race news conference -- Crocker because of his throat, and Phelps because his coach had sent him to his quarters to sleep.