IRVINE, August20 – Michael Phelps received a rude welcome on his return to the 400m individual medley on Thursday, courtesy of US teammates Ryan Lochte and Tyler Clary.Phelps, the world record-holder and two-time Olympic champion in the demanding event, had vowed he wouldn’t swim it again after the Beijing Games.
He relented for the Pan Pacific Championships, but blazing swims by Lochte and Clary two heats in front of him meant Phelps was edged out of the championship final, in which only two swimmers from each nation can compete.
Lochte in 4min 08.77sec and Clary in 4:09.20 posted the two fastest times in the world this year.
Phelps, whose world record stands at 4:03.84, won his heat in 4:15.38 – fourth-fastest of the morning.
The Olympic superstar’s failure to make the final seemed shocking, given that the last time he failed to advance to the final at a major championships was in the 400m freestyle at the 2005 worlds.
But Phelps, who has battled fitness issues all season after a lengthy training break, said he wasn’t too disappointed with the time.
"Looking at the splits, it’s not terrible," Phelps said of an event in which top swimmers typically keep something in reserve for the final. "At trials and Olympics I’ve been faster than that in the morning."
The unique Pan Pacific format gave Lochte and Clary a chance to freeze out their illustrious teammate.
"I definitely wasn’t expecting those boys to come out and fire one off," Phelps said.
"I knew coming into that race that was going to be a rather painful way to wake me up. It’s a good reminder that I need to be in better shape."
Phelps knew what he was up against after seeing the times of Lochte and Clary.
"I was like, ‘Thanks, guys,’" said Phelps, who passed the pair on his way to the blocks.
He told him he didn’t expect to bump them from the final, but Clary thought the 14-time Olympic gold medallist was sandbagging.
"They might have thought I was being coy, but I knew I was being dead-honest," Phelps said. "I knew 4:07 was nowhere near being in the tank."
Phelps said it remained to be seen if he would pursue the 400m medley on a regular basis.
"Who knows. It’s going to have to be a better-judged decision when we get back into solid training," he said.
Phelps’s coach Bob Bowman, who has said he’d like to see the swimmer competing in the 400m medley regularly, said that far from being discouraging, Thursday’s outcome might spur Phelps in the event.
"It might encourage him," Bowman said with a small smile, noting that Phelps’ return to the event "motivated those other guys.
"It showed him what he can do," Bowman said. "No harm done."
Bowman said Phelps wouldn’t race the consolation final, but Phelps was likely to line up in the 4x200m freestyle relay on Thursday night.