LONDON — Cocksure enough to cover his teeth with a grill, more than confident he could emerge from his more-famous teammate’s shadow in these Olympics, Ryan “My Time” Lochte clocked fourth place Monday night.
He ran out of gas. Again. He not only didn’t win his swimming race, he didn’t medal. And all presumptions about the carefree Floridian being to London what Michael Phelps was to Beijing need to end. Now.
Goodbye Olympics cover boy; hello humility.
When asked to envision his Olympics headline prior to the Games, Lochte replied to NBC’s Matt Lauer, “Ryan Lochte Takes Over.” After he missed the podium Monday night in a glitzy 200 freestyle final, he has much ground to make up in his remaining four finals — providing he qualifies for all of them.
The heir apparent to Phelps as the world’s greatest swimmer finished a dispiriting fourth in the 200 free, admitting he went out too fast in a great field. It wasn’t close. He treaded water behind a superior Frenchman for the second night in a row at the Olympic Park Aquatic Centre, where three nights of competition in, it’s become clear:
There is no Michael Phelps at the London Games, nothing close to the indomitable, eight-gold American in 2008.
Yannick Agnel of France — who on Sunday chased Lochte and the Americans down in the 4x100 freestyle relay — might be in the running. The sinewy, nearly 6-foot-8 Frenchman led from start to finish Monday and won his second gold medal in the most formidable field of the men’s competition.
“I put everything into it and I guess it wasn’t there,” Lochte said afterward. “This is one of the deepest fields. From first to eighth is like a second difference. I mean, it’s definitely really hard.”
Lochte didn’t embarrass himself with the loss. Coming in, he had only the third-fastest time in the world in the 200 free. He’s projected to do better in his remaining races, including the 4x200 freestyle relay on Tuesday night.
But gauging by all the magazine covers he adorned, these were supposed to be Lochte’s Olympics the way Beijing 2008 was Phelps’s Olympics. And maybe that’s the problem, the unrealistic comparison of Lochte and a supernova four years ago at the absolute height of his talent, desire and conditioning.
This is purely amateur psychology, but maybe this is what happens when you chase a person instead of the medalists’ podium. Maybe an obsession with becoming what Phelps was in 2008 — a human-turned-dolphin whose success transcended his sport — isn’t healthy.
Maybe beating Phelps in the 400 individual medley final on Saturday, where Lochte won gold and the new-and-not-as-motivated Phelps finished fourth in Lane 8, took so much out of Lochte that he felt the monkey was finally off his back.
He could relax. Heck, play. Stay out till 2 a.m. as he let everyone know the other day.
But when Lochte blew a lead established by his three teammates in the final leg of the 400 relay on Sunday night, then ducked out on questions about his poor performance with the other swimmers on the relay, that’s not a good omen.
When Lochte didn’t get to the podium Monday night, fading badly in the last 50 meters again, that’s one good day at the Olympics and two disappointing ones.
“I guess I did take it out a little too fast,” Lochte said. “I am a back half swimmer. I knew if I wanted to be in the race, I’d have to go out strong. I guess I’ll live and learn and hopefully I won’t let that same kind of mistake happen.
“That last lap hurt especially when you’re racing at this kind of level. You’ve just got to put everything into it. You can’t really hold anything back.
As Lochte failed to make up ground on Agnel, who kept pulling away, it made sense why Phelps dropped this event from his program. Forget about how physically grueling going for eight medals would be again; from a PR standpoint more than five swimmers could have smoked the defending Olympic champion in the event.
Asked whether he was worried about his races the past two nights, Lochte wasn’t having any of it. “No,” he said. “I mean, whatever happened last night happened last night. I had to get over it and move on. And whatever happened tonight, I know I have a couple more races left so I’ve just got to forget about it and move on.”
He’s right. He not only needs to get his fourth-place showing in the touted Race of the Century out of his head. Lochte needs to get it out of his mind that he will ever be Phelps in the public consciousness. Not even Michael Phelps 2012 can be that guy anymore.
Lochte needs to get back in the pool and commit himself to having a great Olympic meet. He needs to climb a few more podiums and chase more medals instead of the idea of being Michael.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
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