That's what made it so hard to watch for a crowd that, once it arrived, was pumped for one of the hottest matchups of the games. Phelps didn't exactly flounder in the water, but he fell behind early to Lochte and then was passed by two other swimmers before finally finishing in 4:09.28, well off the world record of 4:03.84 he set in China.
It's too early to declare him finished, too soon to say he's washed up. But there's a crack in the facade, something that should give hope to anyone competing against him over the next week.
"A lot of people say Michael is inhuman, but you know what?" Lochte said. "He's just like all of us."
He wasn't in Beijing, hasn't been for a long time.
All it took was one night at the pool in these Olympics to change that.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlbberg
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