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Is Swimming Superstar Passing The Torch?


Day One of the London Olympics may have signaled a passing of the torch from one generation of swimming superstars to another. Expectations were sky-high for Michael Phelps, who already had the biggest gold medal haul in Olympic history. But a much-anticipated showdown with swimming teammate Ryan Lochte, turned out to be not much of a showdown at all.

Here's NPR's Howard Berkes.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Michael Phelps arrived in London with his own thick record book: 29 world records, 16 Olympic medals - 14 of them gold. With just three more of any color, Phelps would become the most decorated Olympian ever. You'd have to go back 12 years to find an Olympic race with Phelps in the pool, but not on the medals stand - until last night.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Take your mark.


BERKES: Right from the start, the pace was fast. The leader was under world record time at three of the seven turns in the 400 meter medley. This is the race where each swimmer swims each stroke - butterfly, backstroke, breast stroke and freestyle. Phelps set the world record in the event six times and he won the race at the last two Olympics. But he barely qualified in preliminary heats here in London and he struggled in the final, falling back to fourth place for the finish.


BERKES: The gold medalist and the record-setting pace setter through much of the race was American Ryan Lochte, who arrived in London as the swimmer always compared to Phelps - and mentioned with Phelps - and described as the possible spoiler, the racer who could break the Phelps streak. Boy, did he.

RYAN LOCHTE: This is my year. And I feel it just because I've trained my butt off for four years. And I just feel it inside my gut that this is my year. And I'm going to carry this atmosphere that I created tonight throughout my races throughout the games.

BERKES: Lochte smoked the whole field, finishing more than three seconds ahead of the silver medalist, Thiago Pereira of Brazil. It was the first gold medal of the 2012 Olympics for an American athlete. And it left Phelps sounding defeated in a crowd of reporters shortly after the race.

MICHAEL PHELPS: But I think the biggest think now is just to try to get past this and move forward. And I have a bunch of other races and hopefully we can finish or finish a lot better than what we started. That's what I'm going to try to do.

BERKES: Phelps and Lochte each have three individual races left plus relays. The first relay for Phelps and his next chance for a medal is today. Lochte says Phelps is down but not out.

LOCHTE: I'll tell you this that the next races that he's in, he's going to light it up.

BERKES: And even if Phelps doesn't, and Lochte continues to win medals, most of the questions at Lochte's news conferences will still probably be about Phelps. Phelps is his teammate and friend out of the pool, he says, and they push each other to be better. Lochte swims today in preliminary heats in the 200-meter freestyle, again out to prove that these are not the Michael Phelps Olympics.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, London.


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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.