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Burying Michael Phelps would be foolish

Despite an embarrassing showing on Saturday, American Michael Phelps can still go on to become the most successful male swimmer of the London Olympics.

Too early for a Ryan Lochte coronation

American Michael Phelps is in disbelief after a stunning fourth-place finish in the men’s 400-metre individual medley on Saturday at the London Olympics. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

The quotes came quick and furious on Saturday after American Michael Phelps’ dismal showing in the 400-metre individual medley — a race that rival and fellow countryman Ryan Lochte dominated from start to finish.

Lochte crushed the field, winning in a time of four minutes, 5.18 seconds. A stunned Phelps, who faded by the halfway point, finished a staggering 4.10 seconds behind his rival to place fourth.

Then the inevitable catchphrases began. Headlines like, "the king is dead," or "swimming’s new world order," and the always predicable "passing the torch," routinely ran following the race.

So has Phelps relinquished his crown to the ultra-confident Lochte? Is the man who broke Mark Spitz’s unthinkable record of seven gold medals in one Olympics done? Hardly. Not on the opening day of the swimming competition, anyway.

All this really proves is that Lochte, the two-time world 400 IM champion, won an event he was expected to cruise in. The 27-year-old now has a 1-0 advantage in the race for most gold medals. Phelps, meanwhile, should never have even considered stepping on the block of this punishing event.

He shocked the swimming world at the US trials by dropping 200m freestyle — one of his top events — in favour of the 400 IM.

It was a baffling decision in June, and remains one today. After winning his second straight Olympic 400 IM at the 2008 Beijing Games, Phelps said he was done with the event, and for the majority of the last four years he was.

Why? Because it takes an intense regimen to keep up with the top swimmers in the world, something Phelps wasn’t willing to maintain.

"He hasn’t trained for the four-minute race. He was overextending his reach and it bit him in the butt," explained CBC Sports swimming expert Byron MacDonald.

King Michael

This isn’t the end for King Michael.

Actually, the breakdown the rest of the way paints a far different picture. Phelps and Lochte will race in three more individual events, including one more showdown in the 200 IM.

Phelps will also compete in the 100m and 200m butterfly — where he’s the two-time Olympic champion in both events — plus all three relays. Lochte is set for the 200m backstroke — a virtual gimme — and the 200m freestyle. Additionally, he’ll race in the 4x200 freestyle and could still be added to the 4x100 freestyle.

Aside from swimming in at least one more relay, Phelps has another advantage over Lochte. When the two face off in the 200 IM, a rested Phelps will go into the race rested, while Lochte will have already competed in the 200m backstroke a half hour earlier. That exact scenario played out at the US trials with Phelps coming out on top.

"Michael can refocus and the 200 butterfly is a race that he’s owned," said MacDonald. "That’s the one that he started with and I don’t think anybody can beat him in that one, so he’ll resurrect himself in that.

"He’s also got some luck behind him in the 200 IM. I think Lochte could straight up beat Michael now, but Lochte has another race. And because of that, Michael will have a slight edge, he’ll be fresh and he can probably beat him."

In other words, counting out the 27-year-old Phelps this early because of one forgettable race would be foolish. Perhaps no other athlete can put aside an embarrassing effort and move on.

Lochte’s buoyancy is no doubt at its zenith, but the Rochester, N.Y. native knows better than to think his biggest threat is done.

It’s still anybody’s game.

Here's the remaining race-by-race breakdown for Phelps and Lochte:

Michael PhelpsEventRyan LochteEvent
4x100 FreestyleJuly 29, 3:54PM ET*4x100 FreestyleJuly 29, 3:54PM ET
200 ButterflyJuly 31, 2:47PM ET200 FreestyleJuly 30, 2:41PM ET
4x200 FreestyleJuly 31, 3:47PM ET4x200 FreestyleJuly 31, 3:47PM ET
200 IMAug. 2, 3:16PM ET200 BackstrokeAug. 2, 2:46PM ET
100 ButterflyAug. 3, 2:38PM ET200 IMAug. 2, 3:16PM ET
4x100 MedleyAug. 4, 3:27PM ET*Could be added to relay team