LONDON – Hold the cue for the coronation.
Michael Phelps’ 2012 Olympic Games went from sweet encore to bittersweet battle for redemption in the space of several uncharacteristic strokes Saturday.
Phelps has seven days and up to six more races to prove the same swimmer that willed his way to a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics lurks beneath the lethargic figure that finished fourth in his 2012 opening act, the 400-meter individual medley.
His teammates have no doubt the Phelps of yesteryear will emerge.
“If there’s one thing Michael has shown us throughout the years, it’s that when he does face an obstacle –whether it be a competitor or himself – he’s going to take it,” Eric Shanteau said. “So it will be fun to watch the next seven days and see how he uses this as motivation.”
Phelps has three more individual races and up to three relays on his London Games program, starting with Sunday’s 4x100-meter freestyle relay.
“The biggest thing now is just to try to get past this and move forward,” Phelps said. “I have a bunch of other races and hopefully we can finish a lot better than what we started.”
Phelps always has performed best when his dominance is in doubt. Over the years, his coach, Bob Bowman, has reveled in rivals providing bulletin-board material.
Bowman won’t have to look far for motivational strains from the chorus of criticism coming Phelps’ way now. Bowman even offered some of his own.
“He said it was horrible,” Bowman said of Phelps’ performance in Saturday’s 400 IM, “and it was. He accurately assessed it.”
Phelps was especially flummoxing in the closing freestyle leg. With a half second to make up on third-place finisher Kosuke Hagino of Japan after 300 meters, Phelps didn’t conjure his usual burst of finishing speed to claim a spot on the podium.
“I’m really surprised that he didn’t medal,” said winner Ryan Lochte, who finished second to Phelps in the 400 IM at the 2008 Games, “because whenever Michael swims he’s always on the medal stand no matter what.”
Phelps walked away medal-less for the first time in an Olympic race since 2000, when he finished fifth in his only event, the 200-meter butterfly.
That fifth-place finish sent him immediately back to the practice pool. Within seven months, he set a world record in the 200 fly.
Whether a newly driven Phelps can put Saturday’s result in the rear view quickly depends largely on just how prepared he is for this Olympics.
He blamed his inattention to training post-2008 for his subpar results at the 2011 world championships, where he lost to Lochte in their two head-to-head races (the 200 IM and 200-meter freestyle).
But in the last year, he and Bowman felt he had progressed so far in his preparation that they reintroduced the grueling 400 IM to his program. Phelps had sworn off the event after winning it for a second consecutive Olympics in 2008.
Saturday’s race, though, was “ultimately a fitness issue over what he hasn’t done over four years,” Bowman said.
Phelps still has much to do at these Games, including another possible race against Lochte in the 200 IM on Thursday.
“Michael’s really resilient,” said U.S. teammate Peter Vanderkaay, who won bronze Saturday in the 400-meter freestyle. “I think he’ll bounce back just fine.”
Said Elizabeth Beisel, the silver medalist in Saturday’s women’s 400 IM: “Michael is still Michael Phelps. Nobody can take that away from him. Even if he’s not happy with his swim, he has so many events left to prove himself.”
Phelps needs just three more medals, of any color, to become the most decorated Olympian of all time.
Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina holds the all-time Olympic record with 18 medals, won in four Games through 1964. Phelps has 16, including six gold and two bronze from the 2004 Olympics.
“It’s weird,” Brazil’s Thiago Pereira, who finished second to Lochte on Saturday, said of Phelps’ result. “But he’s still Michael Phelps. He’s still the biggest athlete in the world. He’s still the biggest Olympic athlete ever.”
Phelps, who has insisted the London Games will be his last, has seven more days to restore the luster to that status.
Last week, he said this Olympics was “about how many toppings do I want on my sundae.”
Now it’s about regaining respect, about proving he didn’t leave the invincible Phelps the world came to know in Beijing somewhere on a golf course during missed practices in the last four years.
“A lot of people say Michael is inhuman,” Lochte said. “But you know what, he’s just like all of us.”