LONDON – He made it look easy, and he made history in the process, beating the greatest swimmer of all time.
Ryan Lochte is the new Olympic champion in the men’s 400-meter individual medley, and the first American to capture a gold medal at the 2012 London Games.
Lochte dethroned fellow American Michael Phelps, dominating from start to finish to complete the race in 4 minutes, 5.18 seconds on Saturday at the Aquatics Centre. Brazil’s Thiago Pereira nabbed the silver (4:08.86) and 17-year-old Kosuke Hagino — the other Kosuke — earned the bronze (4:08.94).
Phelps finished a disappointing fourth in 4:09.28 — that’s practically light years away in swimming.
In the night’s other marquee race, two-time double gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima was in familiar territory, racing to put himself in position to contend for another gold, with an unprecedented triple-double (three-peat in two events) a possibility, starting with Sunday’s 100 breaststroke final. In the semifinals, he qualified sixth in 59.69 seconds, slow by his standards, but good enough to return to competition a day later.
In the morning, Kitajima had the second-fastest time in the six heats (59.63). After the race, the Tokyo native said, “It’s good for a first race. I can swim at a really high level so I will try to improve for the semifinals.
“I don’t feel any pressure. I am here to enjoy myself.”
After the semifinals, Kitajima commented on his effort on the day while looking ahead to Sunday. He said, “I just enjoy it. It’s going to be really close in the final. I (will) just try to get a medal. . . . My stroke is getting smaller at last.”
Meanwhile, for Lochte and Phelps, there’s no way one can downplay the buildup to their showdown in the 400 IM final, not after Lochte won the race at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials earlier this year. And, based on what both men have accomplished as U.S. teammates — and enhanced by their stunning talents and skills as relay stars — it was the most anticipated duel in swimming history.
But for all the hype, here’s what it became: Lochte producing a gold-medal effort that was an historic first, his first individual triumph over Phelps in the Olympics.
“For four years I’ve been training hard,” an excited Lochte said. “This is just my first event so I’m really happy. I’m ready to rock this Olympics.”
Lochte employed smooth, swift, powerful transitions from butterfly, to backstroke, breaststroke and then freestyle. He never slowed down, picking up speed and rhythm as the race progressed.
“I was in kind of shock (at the end),” said Lochte, who now has seven Olympic medals in his impressive, growing collection. “I knew I was in good form going into these games. I could hear the fans screaming and having my family here helped me a lot.”
Reacting to his performance, Phelps, known as “The Baltimore Bullet,” couldn’t hide his disappointment. He couldn’t conceal the obvious.
“I’m a bit frustrated, I’m not feeling that great,” said Phelps, a 14-time gold medalist who is scheduled to swim in seven events in London, one less than during his record-breaking, eight-gold medal effort in Beijing.
“I just want to put this race behind me and move on,” he lamented.
“I was trying to find a gear that I couldn’t find,” added Phelps, who plans to retire after the London Games. “I felt fine for the first 200 meters (when he was in third place), and spent the last 100 struggling. I have swam better races and been better prepared.
“It was a very frustrating finish.”
Phelps’ longtime coach, Bob Bowman, couldn’t pinpoint a reason for his star pupil’s uncharacteristically lousy race.
“I honestly don’t think it was a fitness issue,” Bowman told reporters, “(and) I thought he was in a good place mentally.”
Aichi Prefecture native Yuya Horihata, who turns 22 on July 30, finished sixth in 4:13.30.
Phelps barely qualified for the 400 IM final, claiming the eighth and final spot in 4 minutes, 13.33 seconds, finishing seven-hundredths of a second ahead of Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh, who collected three silvers at the 2008 Beijing Games in events (200 butterfly, 200 IM and 400 IM) that Phelps won.
Hagino, who hails from Tochigi Prefecture, swam the fastest heat of 37 participants (4:10:01).
The morning heats included a big surprise, with Cseh not booking a spot for the eight-man final. Instead, unheralded Hagino and Horihata (4:13.09; placing just ahead of Phelps in qualifying) gave Japan strong representation in the final.
After missing out on a chance to contend for a medal, Cseh reacted by saying, “I thought I was going to do better than Phelps. I would not have thought this would have been the result.”
In other events, Yuka Kato missed the cut for the women’s 100 butterfly final, placing 11th in 58.26, 1.90 seconds behind Dana Vollmer of Canada, the top finisher, in the semifinals.
Haruka Ueda, Yayoi Matsumoto, Miki Uchida and Hanae Ito — swimming in that order — qualified fifth for the women’s 4×100 freestyle (3:38.96) behind Australia, Team USA, the Netherlands and China, first to fourth, respectively, before finishing seventh in the final later Saturday evening.
Also, China’s Sun Yang won the men’s 400 freestyle in 3:40.14, shattering Australian Ian Thorpe’s 2000 Olympic record by 0.45 seconds.
China’s Ye Shiwen, age 16, and Li Xuanxu, 18, finished first and third, respectively, in the women’s 400 IM. Ye set an Olympic and world record (4:28.43), eclipsing Australian Stephanie Rice’s Beijing Olympics mark by more than a second. Elizabeth Beisel of the United States earned the silver.
Great Britain’s Hannah Miley, who placed fifth, was impressed with China’s performance.
“That was very fast,” Miley said, marveling at the display of pure athleticism from the Chinese teenagers. “There’s a lot of things they have taken from us senior ones. For us, it’s an opportunity to learn from them. It’s a privilege to be part of that race.
“It’s not very often you get to swim in the same waters as a world-record holder. I do apologize to everybody that it wasn’t what everybody expected. For me, I gave it my all.”