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Floundering?

Michael Phelps's loss to Ryan Lochte at the nationals should sound a wake-up call for the Olympic champ

Of the few surprises at the U.S. national swimming championships in Irvine, Calif., last week, none was bigger than this: After 38 straight long-course titles in the 200-meter individual medley, a streak that reached back nine years, Michael Phelps faltered and lost. In a historic role reversal Ryan Lochte was the victor, Phelps the runner-up.

The man with 14 Olympic golds had beaten Lochte in 17 200 IMs during that span, enough to carve out permanent space in most opponents' heads. Yet on Friday, Lochte, who had been nursing a groin injury, blew past Phelps in the final 25 meters of the freestyle leg—"like I was standing still," said Phelps—to win in 1:54.84, just .74 off the world record Lochte set at the worlds in Rome last summer. Phelps was 1.10 seconds back in his first 200 IM in a major competition in two years. Though his was the second-best time in the world this year, he felt betrayed by his body. "I felt like my body shut down," he said. "I felt like I couldn't turn over my arms."

Phelps's fitness had been a hot topic all week. On Aug. 4 he gutted out a sloppy win in the 200 fly—"probably the worst 200 fly in my life," he said with disgust—an hour after winning the 200 free. "The second [race] was terrible," he said. "For me to swim those two races well, I'm going to have to be in shape." A day later he regained his form to win the 100 fly in 50.65, just .07 off his gold medal time in Beijing. On the final day he finished fourth in a 200 backstroke final won by Lochte. Phelps said the 200 back, too, felt "terrible."

Phelps's aerobic challenges in Irvine reflected a year of inconsistent training and "being lazy," he says. That aside, there was little in Phelps's performances to give competitors hope he's lost his edge. Despite Phelps's post-Beijing talk of moving into new events, such as the 100 free, his program for London 2012 is shaping up to be similar to the one he had in China. "The problem with the 100 free is that its [Olympics] schedule conflicts with the 200 fly, and we're never giving that up," says his coach, Bob Bowman. And as much as Phelps dislikes training for and racing in the grueling 400 IM, he's feeling pressure from Bowman and others to put it back in his program. "Even my mom gives me a hard time about it," he says.

"I think it's his best event," says Bowman. "And when you have that in the program, you absolutely have to train for it. And that takes care of [the training for] all the other events." It also eliminates any room for being lazy. But Bowman shouldn't have to worry about that anymore, thanks in part to Lochte. As Phelps said after the 200 IM, "Losses always motivate me."

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SHORT LAPS

Deeper Pool

The winner of the men's 100 breaststroke in Irvine, Michael Alexandrov, may be new to the U.S. team, but he's a seasoned veteran of international competition. A native of Sofia, Bulgaria, Alexandrov (below) moved to the States in 1994 but competed for Bulgaria in the 2004 and '08 Olympics, following the path of his father, Plamen, a breaststroker on the 1980 Bulgarian Olympic team. Alexandrov became a U.S. citizen in 2006 and after the Beijing Games he switched his sports allegiance as well. "I could have taken the easy way out and swum for Bulgaria, but I never would have reached my potential in competitive swimming," says the 25-year-old. "In the U.S. there is a lot more pressure, and you have to be on your A game. If you're on your A game here, you're on your A game in the rest of the world."

TWO PHOTOS

HEINZ KLUETMEIER

WORLD BEATER In the last leg of the 200 IM (top), Lochte (left) blew past Phelps, who admitted he's not in ideal racing shape.

PHOTO

HEINZ KLUETMEIER