LONDON >> Ryan Lochte turned his much-anticipated duel with Michael Phelps into a blowout, pulling away to win the Olympic 400-meter individual medley by more than 3 seconds tonight. Even more stunning: Phelps didn’t win any medal at all.
After barely qualifying for the evening final in a performance that hinted at trouble ahead, Phelps struggled to a fourth-place finish and was denied his 17th career Olympic medal. When it was done, he could barely pull himself out of the pool.
“It was just a crappy race,” Phelps said. “I felt fine the first 200, then I don’t know. They just swam a better race than me, a smarter race than me, and were better prepared than me. That’s why they’re on the medal stand.”
Lochte took the gold with a time of 4 minutes, 5.18 seconds. Brazil’s Thiago Pereira (4:08.86) settled for silver, while Japan’s Kosuke Hagino (4:08.94) claimed the bronze — beating Phelps by a fairly comfortable 34-hundredths of a second for the last spot on the podium.
It was the first time since the 2000 Sydney Games, when Phelps was a 15-year-old unknown who qualified in just one event, that he didn’t win at least a bronze in an Olympic race. Since then, he was 16-of-16 — 14 golds and two bronzes.
Lochte climbed out of the pool with a big smile, waving to the crowd and looking about as fresh as he did at the start. He had predicted this would be his year and, for the first race of the Olympics at least, he was right on the mark.
“I think I’m kind of in shock right now,” he said. As for Phelps, “I know he gave it everything he had. That’s all you can ask for.”
Phelps was trying to become the first male swimmer to win the same individual event at three straight Olympics. He’ll have three more chances at a threepeat before he’s done in London, having also won the 200 individual medley, plus the 100 and 200 butterfly, at Athens and Beijing.
China claimed a couple of gold medals on the opening night of swimming at the Olympic Aquatic Centre.
Sixteen-year-old Ye Shiwen set a world record in the women’s 400 individual medley — only the third mark to fall since high-tech bodysuits were banned at the end of 2009. She won in 4:28.43, breaking the mark of 4:29.45 by Australia’s Stephanie Rice at the 2008 Beijing Games. American Elizabeth Beisel took silver and China’s Li Xuanxu grabbed the bronze.
Sun Yang flirted with a world record in the men’s 400 freestyle. He took gold in 3:40.14, just off the mark of 3:40.07 by Germany’s Paul Biedermann in a rubberized suit three years ago. When it was done, Sun propped himself on the lane rope, pumping his fist and splashing the water.
South Korea’s Park Tae-hwan won silver in 3:42.06, fortunate even to take part after initially being disqualified for a false start in the prelims. The ruling was overturned by governing body FINA a couple of hours later on appeal. Peter Vanderkaay of the U.S. won the bronze in 3:44.69.
Australia captured gold in the women’s 400 freestyle relay with an Olympic record of 3:33.15, rallying to pass the Americans and hold off the fast-charging Netherlands.
The U.S. got off to a blistering start with Missy Franklin swimming leadoff under world-record pace, and the Americans were still ahead after Jessica Hardy went next. But the Australians rallied behind Brittany Elmslie on the third 100, and Melanie Schlanger held on at the end, with Ranomi Kromowidjojo closing fast to give the Netherlands a silver in 3:33.79.
The other members of the winning team were Alicia Coutts and Cate Campbell.
The Americans slipped to the bronze in 3:34.24, but that was still good enough to give Natalie Coughlin the 12th medal of her career, tying Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson as the most decorated U.S. female Olympians in any sport.