You got the feeling Michael Phelps didn’t really want to be in this water-gunfight. It was only the first swimming event of the London Olympics, but he swam like it was the last. Like he has swum it one too many times. Like he was swimming out of obligation, rather than inspiration. Let’s be honest: Phelps has already given his best. Now he’s giving what’s left.

The 400-meter individual medley is the ultimate duel against boredom and muscle-burn, and Phelps looked both bored and a little burned out in finishing fourth behind the radiant gold medalist Ryan Lochte. “Crappy,” Phelps called his performance. “Horrible,” his coach Bob Bowman added. The question suddenly became not how much Phelps has left, but whether there is much of anything at all, after fizzling in what was supposed to be the most exciting race of the entire Olympics, against his biggest rival.

This was supposed to be the ultimate confrontation, the most glamorous event of the whole Olympic meet, a clash of both substance and style: Phelps, long, laconic, tensile; Lochte, smaller but dolphin-smooth and easy. Phelps the defending Olympic gold medalist on the verge of retirement. Lochte the reigning world champion, who just this year has found his greatest form, as both a swimmer and a Vogue cover boy.

Yet Phelps almost botched the whole thing in the morning preliminary when he barely qualified for the final at all.

Phelps has always been a feel swimmer; he’s not a particularly conscious organism in the water. He relies on an inner alarm system that tells him when to go, based on years of listening to his own pulse underwater and experiences in hundred of races. But this time, it didn’t go off.

He was just a little flat, or complacent, or rote. Maybe trying to follow a record eight gold medals in Beijing with seven events here, in his fourth Olympics, is simply too much. After all these years, he was truly ambivalent about entering the lung-searing 400 IM, an event he has sworn several times never to swim again. Maybe with six more events to go, he was simply being too careful to conserve energy.

Two days earlier he described his mind-set: “You really have to, I don’t want to say hold back, you have to put yourself in a good position, you have to work out how much energy it is going to take. . . . You have to save some stuff up. I have a long meet and a lot of swimming. It is knowing how much to put into every race and going from there.”

But in this case Phelps didn’t know — and that was disturbing. He apparently thought he was swimming faster than he was in the prelim. For whatever reason in that race he was markedly relaxed in the water, gliding along with those long cuttlefish arms, keeping pace with Laszlo Cseh of Hungary but not really pushing. Only a fingertip saved him, as he barely out-touched Cseh by seven hundredths of a second. “I was lucky to get in,” he admitted later.

Phelps’s fourth-place finish in the final was hardly a disgrace. The 400 IM is the single hardest event in the sport, and he was up against a guy in Lochte he knew he probably couldn’t beat, a guy so hungry for gold that he works out by flipping 850-pound tires, and who won five gold medals at the last world championships. Is it really any surprise that Phelps should struggle to find his motivation and his strokes at this stage of his career? Is it any surprise if he is a little tired?

His detractors, who tend to be his inferiors, will charge that he got lazy over the last four years, or that he should have hit the water instead of the water pipe. That’s unfair. Just consider how little Phelps has to gain by swimming in London. He has 14 gold medals, and he’s already the greatest swimmer of all time, and there’s nothing he can do to add to that luster. He is trying to become the first man in history to win three straight gold medals in an event — but does he really need another all-time record? What for?

By now a swim meet must feel as exciting to him as a car wash. Yet Phelps came to London anyway. There is something worth appreciating in that. A lot, actually.

One of Phelps’s qualities too seldom remarked on is his absolute dedication to promoting the sport. The fact is, Phelps trained for the 400 IM only reluctantly, but he understood the tremendous marquee value of an Olympic match race between him and Lochte, what a potential firecracker it could be to kick off the event. He swam for sponsors, TV announcers, his coach, his mother and for U.S. swimming — for just about everyone but perhaps himself. Phelps is nobody’s idea of a selfless individual, but in this case, he may have taken one for the team.

An athlete of Phelps’s makeup has only so many efforts in him. If Phelps hasn’t totally emptied himself swimming, his results Saturday suggest he’s getting close. That’s not disappointing. It’s admirable. Watching Phelps try to summon his last bursts, the end of his quest to thoroughly exhaust his great talent in a pool, will be one of the most worthwhile spectacles in this Olympics.

Lochte’s prediction on his conquered foe? “The next race he is in, he’s gonna light it up.”

For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit