LONDON — Ryan Lochte turned his much-anticipated duel with Michael Phelps into a blowout, winning the Olympic 400-meter individual medley by more than 3 seconds Saturday night. Even more stunning: Phelps didn't win any medal at all.
After barely qualifying for the evening final in a performance that hinted at trouble ahead, Phelps struggled to a fourth-place finish and was denied his 17th career Olympic medal. When it was done, he could barely pull himself out of the pool.
"It was just a crappy race," Phelps said. "I felt fine the first 200, then I don't know. They just swam a better race than me, a smarter race than me, and were better prepared than me. That's why they're on the medal stand."
Brazil's Thiago Pereira took the silver, and Japan's Kosuke Hagino claimed the bronze — beating Phelps by a fairly comfortable 34-hundredths of a second for the last spot on the podium.
It was the first time since the 2000 Sydney Games, when Phelps was a 15-year-old unknown who qualified in just one event, that he didn't win at least a bronze in an Olympic race. Since then, he was 16-of-16 — 14 golds and two bronzes.
Lochte climbed out of the pool with a big smile, waving to the crowd and looking about as fresh as he did at the start. He had predicted this would be his year and, for the first race at least, he was right on the mark.
"I think I'm kind of in shock right now," he said. As for Phelps, "I know he gave it everything he had. That's all you can ask for."
Phelps was trying to become the first male swimmer to win the same individual event at three straight Olympics. He'll have three more chances at a three-peat before he's done in London, having also won the 200 individual medley, plus the 100 and 200 butterfly, at Athens and Beijing.
But this was shocking — totally out of character for a swimmer who won six gold medals in Athens, then a record eight in Beijing to break Mark Spitz's Olympic record.
Phelps fell behind right from the start in the butterfly, his trademark stroke. From there, it was all Lochte. He stretched his margin in the backstroke and breaststroke, then cruised to the gold in the freestyle, a good three body lengths ahead of the rest of the field.
"It's frustrating, that's all I can say. It's pretty upsetting," Phelps said. "The biggest thing now is to try to look forward. I have a bunch of other races, and hopefully we can finish a lot better than how we started."
Phelps' close call in the morning prelims put him in an already uncustomary position — swimming on the outside in the No. 8 lane. He only had one swimmer next to him and no idea what Lochte and the others in the middle of the pool were doing.
Not that it would have mattered.
"I don't think the lane had anything to do with it," Phelps said. "I just couldn't really put myself in a good spot for that race. It's frustrating for sure. ... It's just really frustrating to start off on a bad note like this.
"I was lucky to get in," he added, referring to his slow time in the morning. "I had a chance to put myself in a spot to start off on a good note and didn't do it."
Lochte gave the Americans their first gold medal of the London Games and put himself in position to fulfill the promise he showed at last year's world championships, where he won five golds and beat Phelps in their two head-to-head meetings.
The friendly rivals have one more showdown in London, in the 200 individual medley. Phelps edged Lochte in that race during the U.S. Olympics trials, but Lochte appears to be on top of his game when it really counts.
About a half-hour after the race, the laid-back Floridian returned to the medal podium to receive the fourth gold medal of his career.
Phelps was nowhere to be found.