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As Olympic trials open, ailing Ryan Lochte fails to qualify in 400 IM

Ryan Lochte injured his groin in the preliminaries, then faded to third place in the final of the 400-meter individual medley at the Olympic trials in Omaha on Sunday night. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Ryan Lochte hung his face in the water and draped two weary arms over the lane line while the swimmers to his immediate left hugged and celebrated the crowning achievement of their young athletic lives. Glory and crushing heartbreak live in close proximity to each other at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, but nobody expected Lochte, among the most decorated Olympians in history, to be the one lifting himself out of the water alone and shuffling off in defeat.

Chase Kalisz and Jay Litherland trail Lochte in years by nine and 11 , respectively, and in Olympic appearances by three each — which is to say, neither has been to one. But what mattered Sunday night, the opening night of the 2016 trials, was that they touched the wall before the 31-year-old legend in the final of the 400-meter individual medley.

It will be Kalisz, a 22-year-old out of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, and Litherland, a 20-year-old from Alpharetta, Ga., representing the United States in the 400 IM at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics in about six weeks. Kalisz touched first Sunday night in 4:09.54 — the second-fastest time in the world this year — with Litherland second at 4:11.02, exactly a second ahead of Lochte. Kalisz and Litherland are teammates at the University of Georgia.

“The whole thing went by so fast. I feel like I’m in a different reality right now,” Kalisz said. “I can’t begin to explain what I’m feeling right now.”

On a day when the other most visible American swimmers — Missy Franklin, Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps — did not compete, it was Lochte, an 11-time Olympic medalist, who was the top draw for the sellout crowd that crammed into the 14,500-seat arena for the opening night of the nationally televised spectacle often called the Super Bowl of swimming.

And as satisfying as it was for Team USA to witness the arrival of a pair of young, talented and newly minted Olympians — with Kalisz waving to the sell-out crowd at CenturyLink Center from the victory ceremony and saying into the microphone, at the urging of the emcee, “I’m Chase Kalisz, and I’m a 2016 Olympian!” — it was equally disturbing to contemplate what Sunday night’s loss meant for Lochte.

After the final, Lochte — who owns five of the top 10 times in history in the 400 IM — revealed he had suffered a pulled groin during the breaststroke leg of his preliminary heat. After he received treatment during the day, the injury was still bothering him, and he said he contemplated withdrawing from the final.

Instead, he went ahead and swam it, going out at a blistering pace in the butterfly — because he knew he wouldn’t have the legs to perform a respectable breaststroke. He was right; Kalisz passed him during that stroke. But Lochte’s fast early pace also resulted in his being spent by the closing freestyle leg, which is when Litherland caught and passed him to get the coveted second Olympic berth.

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“I did everything I could in that race. It just wasn’t enough,” Lochte said afterward, still breathing heavily. “So I just have to forget about that and move forward. . . . I thought about [scratching], but it’s the Olympic trials. If I had a broken leg, I’d still go out there and swim.”

The question now is how much Lochte has damaged his chances for the rest of the eight-day meet by entering — then being injured in and ultimately losing — an event he has swum infrequently since his triumph at the 2012 London Games.

The fact he entered it all here surprised many on the pool deck, and after what happened Sunday night, it is fair to wonder whether it was a massive miscalculation.

Not only is the 400 IM arguably the most taxing event in swimming — one that tests not only your stamina but all four of your strokes, with their varying kinetic systems — but after swimming it twice Sunday, not to mention suffering an injury in it, Lochte now has to hope he can recover in time for his other events, which include the 200 IM, the 200 backstroke and the 100 and 200 freestyles. The 200 free arrives Monday, with preliminaries in the morning and semifinals in the evening.

“I’m going to keep working on [the injury], and hopefully it gets better throughout the week,” said Lochte, who will turn 32 two days before the Rio Opening Ceremonies.

No less an authority than Michael Phelps himself — Lochte’s longtime friend and rival, and the world-record holder in the 400 IM — seemed to question Lochte’s wisdom in entering the race. It is a dilemma he faced himself four years ago, with an equally disappointing outcome.

“That race is tough. That’s one of the hardest races to really put your body through,” said Phelps, who entered the race at the 2012 London Olympics, without training for or competing in it extensively, and finished off the podium. “That’s a race you have to be ready for. But I will say Ryan is somebody who is very tough and is somebody who will bounce back. He is somebody who’s got a full schedule this week, and I would assume he would use this as motivation to get going.”

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Meanwhile, with both his victory and especially his personal-best time, Kalisz has announced himself as a medal threat in Rio, with a gold not out of the question. The United States has won gold in the 400 IM in every Olympics going back to Atlanta in 1996. This year, only Japan’s Kosuke Hagino (4:08.85 in May) has been faster than Kalisz.

Among the first to congratulate Kalisz on the pool deck following Sunday night’s race was Phelps, his longtime training partner and mentor with the NBAC. “I’m proud of you,” Phelps whispered in Kalisz’s ear as they hugged, with Phelps later saying he was crying during those few moments.

“That was just a very emotional moment,” Kalisz said. “Michael has been like an older brother to me that I never had. He’s been the one guy I’ve looked up to my entire life. I never had a role model as big as him. For me to even be able to train with him and know him personally was enough for me, and it’s gone beyond that.”

These Olympic Games will be the first since 2000 with neither Phelps nor Lochte on the top level of the 400 IM podium. The former won gold at Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008, and the latter in London in 2012. Sunday night, then, felt like the passing of a torch to the young Kalisz.

For Lochte, though, it was not a torch he was necessarily ready to relinquish.