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Phelps proves human after all

india Updated: Jul 30, 2012 01:28 IST

The crowd at the Olympic Aquatics Centre arrived late, as if they were trying to stall off the inevitable. Anyone with a prized ticket to the first big showdown of the London Games had to know Michael Phelps was in trouble earlier in the day when he barely qualified for the final of the event he owns two gold in.

That was a shocker, but what happened last night in the Olympic pool was simply mystifying.

No self-respecting London bookie would have even dared to lay odds that the greatest swimmer ever wouldn't even win as much as a bronze medal in his first race in these games.

The great swimming showdown to open the Olympics was a giant bust - unless, of course, your name is Ryan Lochte.

The surfer dude from Florida dominated the 400-meter individual medley from the opening stroke, making an early case for himself as the face of swimming in these games while thrashing a guy he never used to be able to beat.

And in the process, Lochte may have shattered the Phelps mystique once and for all. Untouchable in Beijing. Oh, so human in London.

This wasn't just a loss, it was a blowout.

By the time Phelps finally touched the wall in fourth, Lochte had been resting there for more than 4 seconds.

Shattered facade

What followed next was almost as revealing.

While Lochte celebrated, Phelps climbed slowly from the pool, like it was a chore just to make it out.

He then trudged off to answer a few questions from reporters and try to figure out where it all went wrong.

Worn out already, and six races still to go. "It was just a crappy race," Phelps said by way of explanation "I felt fine the first 200, then I don't know."

Not surprising, if only because the athlete is always the last one to know. At 27 Phelps has a lot of mileage under his long arms, a lot of history to have to live up to.

Phelps has been swimming for medals since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and seemed almost giddy when he tweeted on Friday that he had finished his last practice as a competitive swimmer.

Maybe he didn't have the fire inside. Maybe he's starting to slow just a bit from the wear and tear. Or maybe he just had what he claims he had -- a bad day.

It's too early to declare him finished, too soon to say he's washed up. But there's a crack in the facade. "A lot of people say Michael is inhuman, but he's just like all of us," said Lochte.

He wasn't in Beijing, hasn't been for a long time. All it took was one night to change that.