The 2012 Olympics will be the farewell games for American swimmer Michael Phelps, but it started with the athlete almost failing to qualify for one of his signature events. In the qualifying heat for the 400-meter individual medley on Saturday morning, Phelps barely earned the last spot for the evening’s final. He beat the ninth finisher by only .07 seconds.
“That one didn’t feel too good,” he said in an interview with CBS news after the qualifier.
In the last two Olympics, Phelp won the event and the world record each time he did. His time from the Beijing games, when he won a record-setting eight gold medals, is still the world record time for the 400 IM.
Earlier in the month, Phelp’s coach Bob Bowman announced that Phelps will not be swimming in the 200-meter freestyle event, which means he can’t repeat his historic eight gold medals performance.
“It’s so much smarter for me to do that,” Phelps told The Associated Press. “We’re not trying to recreate what happened in Beijing. It just makes sense.”
The final event, later on Saturday, will be the first contest between US swim team rivals Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Lochte, who beat Phelps at the U.S. trials last month, finished third in his qualifying swim for the 400 IM.
Much attention has been given to the rivalry of Lochte and Phelps, though the two will only go head-to-head twice. Many believe that Lochte, who has been swimming for almost as long as Phelps, is poised to win more gold medals than he has in previous Olympic Games. The pair is quick to downplay any rivalry or sense of discord in the team.
“I’m friends with everyone,” said Phelps in an interview with the San Francisco Gate. “I don’t really have any enemies. Me and him have created a great rivalry, but at the same time we’ve created a great friendship.”
There were other surprises for Olympic swimmers Saturday morning. South Korean Olympic champion Park Tae-hwan won his 400 freestyle qualifier, but was disqualified for a false start. And the world record holder for the 400 freestyle event, Paul Biedermann of Germany failed to make the final.
South Korea is protesting Park’s disqualification though it was upheld by the technical swimming committee of the Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA). South Korea is now appealing that decision.
Phelps lackluster standing in the qualifier may be the result of more swimmers using a once illegal maneuver. The so-called Kitajima Kick, where swimmers sneak in butterfly stroke kicks in the usual breaststroke kick, has become quasi-legal for the competitions. Though the maneuver is still illegal, FINA added some leeway for accidental use.
The phrase, “A single butterfly kick is permitted during the first arm stroke, followed by a breaststroke kick,” was added the regulations for swimming. International swimmers, including the eponymous Kosuke Kitajima, have used the ruling to modify their strokes to include as many butterfly maneuvers as possible.