James Lawton: Phelps comes to end of the lane after humbling

 

Michael Phelps had two ambitions coming here. The first was to re-state his aura as one of the great Olympians while winning the three more medals which would make him the most successful competitor of all time. The other was to smell the flowers. Now, however he persuades himself otherwise, it appears he has just one.

It is, suddenly, savagely for the big man from Baltimore, honeysuckle time.

It was bad enough that the man he claims is his friend despite a ferocious rivalry, Ryan Lochte, reduced him to irrelevance as he left him struggling in his wake. Even more excruciating for the man who won six gold medals in Athens, then a record-breaking eight in Beijing, Phelps was left without any kind of medal to help him along to what would be the unique mark of 19.

Brazil's Thiago Pereira and Japan's Kosuke Hagino were also far too strong for Phelps in the men's 400m individual medley he recently swore he would never race again. It's a brutally demanding challenge for an ageing demi-god who admitted that for two or three years after his Beijing spectacular he lost the hard edge of his ambition.

Lochte won in 4:05.18, more than two points of a second behind Phelps' world record mark in Beijing four years ago.

With three gold medals already in his possession, this triumph delivered Lochte potential to prove himself the new superstar of the pool and if there was any doubt about this, the slumped shoulders of the man he had just thrashed so comprehensively removed the last of it.

Phelps may have hardened Lochte's resolve to a critical point earlier in the week when he said he'd come to the "closing hour" and the only question was how many toppings he wanted on his sundae.

Here last night it was not ice cream sending a chill through the greatest swimmer the world has ever seen. It was the understanding when he decided to fight back from those years of dwindling ambition, he wasn't doing a whole lot more than fooling himself. Here it has been Lochte, who like Phelps is 27, who has shown all the drive of authentic ambition. Yesterday, there were times when Phelps looked like a man playing a part – and with quite a degree of detachment.

After scraping into the final by the barest margin – and being consigned to lane 8 – Phelps came to the moment of decision with a distracted look on his face and a set of headphones. He was straining to look competitive in the first 100 metres of butterfly action, then began to shrivel with each upping of the pressure by Lochte and his pursuers.

Phelps shrugged and resolved to glean some comfort from the medals that still may be available to him in relay events but clearly this was a man who had looked into the future and not seen a lot to encourage him to carry on with a work schedule that his coach Bob Bowman was the other day describing as one of the great wonders of big-time sport.

Phelps declared: "I felt great for the first 200 metres but after that it just didn't happen. I was lucky to reach the final and that gave me the chance to get off on a good note but I didn't take it." Lochte said that he was in a state of shock but then, after a shortest of pauses, suggested that this was, for all his friend's reputation, not the greatest surprise of his competitive life.

"I knew I could win this race," said Lochte, "and I am very happy I've done it. I know Michael gave it everything he had so I will have to have a chat with him later and see how he is after that."

The best guess must be that he will find him extremely bruised. Going into the race, Phelps talked like a man determined to draw everything he could from his last run at the glory. "It is quite emotional to think I'll be doing this all for the last time and I certainly would make the best of it I can."

His coach Bowman said that his man had been brought back to the best of his condition and to the peak of his ambition. It is the kind of thing you hear handlers of ageing boxers say when they know a champion may have lost his edge.

Swimmers, even ones as great as Michael Phelps, tend to age a little quicker than most of their fellow sportsman, even fighters, and last night it looked as if the great man had agreed to a few fights too many.

Ryan Lochte was every inch the new man on the block and for the old champion there wasn't a lot more to do than reflect on how it is when you lose the best of your punches.

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