By: Mark Maloney
SEC Digital Network
LONDON — The most anticipated race on the first full day of competition at the Summer Olympic Games really was no race at all.
Ryan Lochte, the former Florida Gator, manhandled Michael Phelps and everyone else in Saturday’s 400-meter individual medley in London’s Aquatics Centre.
Lochte, who earned six medals (three gold) over the previous two Olympics, romped in 4:05.18.
Although well off the record of 4:03.84 that Phelps set en route to an unprecedented eight golds at the Beijing Olympics, Lochte made the London IM a rout.
Silver-medalist Thiago Pereira of Brazil finished 3.68 seconds behind in 4:08.86. Then came Japan’s Kosuke Hagino, setting an Asian record of 4:08.94.
Phelps, who barely qualified out of the morning heats, struggled to place fourth in 4:09.28.
"It feels amazing, knowing that the last four years I’ve put in the hard work that finally paid off," said Lochte, a 24-time All-American, two-time NCAA Swimmer of the Year and seven-time NCAA champion for Florida.
Lochte trailed South Africa’s Chad le Clos after the first 50 meters of the butterfly, but led at every turn therafter.
He completed the ‘fly in 55.02, the backstroke in 1:58.86, the breaststroke in 3:06.53, then turned himself loose on the freestyle.
"Going into the race, I think that I was just so excited to get swim in the finals that I think I went a little too hard on the first 50 ... so it kind of hurt me toward the end," Lochte said. "But I was in the lead. I kept on looking at the scoreboard, so I guess that kind of slowed me down.
"But it was definitely a great field and I knew that it wasn’t just going to just be me and Michael. There were those other swimmers there and it was definitely a great field. When I touched the wall, I guess I was in shock. I think I still am, that I finally won."
With a burning desire since Beijing to overtake Phelps, Lochte used all means necessary to prepare for London. He came away from the 2008 Games third in this event.
"I’ve said this before, that this is my year," he said. "I know, and I feel it, just because I’ve put in hard work. I’ve trained my butt off for four years and I just feel inside my gut that this year is my year.
"No better way to start this Olympics with my first race, getting gold. So it definitely gives me a lot more energy and I’m going to carry this atmosphere that I’ve created tonight througout my races."
In Saturday’s preliminaries, Phelps had to come from behind on the last leg to win his heat and edge Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh, the 2008 silver medalist. Phelps’ time of 4:13.33 was just enough to get the eighth and final qualifying spot to the finals.
"I think the only thing that matters is getting a spot," Phelps said after the heats. "You can’t get the gold medal from the morning."
Lochte, who shut things down late in his swim, took second in his heat and qualified third overall in 4:12.35.
"Didn’t feel so good, but that was my first race," Lochte said. "My first race is always the worst. I am glad to get the cobwebs off. What I had to do was get a lane for tonight, so I am pretty happy."
Neither swimmer could have expected what unfolded that night.
"It’s weird not having Michael with me on the medal stand," Lochte said. "I don’t know if this puts me as one of the world’s greatest. I hope so. ... That’s not my decision. All I can say is that Michael still, to me, he is one of the world’s greatest. And no matter what happens, he will always go down as one of the greatest. And I know he gave it 110 percent and, honestly, that’s all you can ever ask for."
Lochte wasn’t the only Southeastern Conference product to make waves Saturday.
Florida junior Elizabeth Beisel scored a silver medal and Georgia senior Allison Schmitt took a bronze.
Beisel was all smiles after earning a silver medal in the women’s 400 individual medley.
"Oh, yeah. I’m totally satisfied," she said minutes after swimming to a second-place finish in the women’s 400-meter individual medley. "A gold (medal) is something that would be a little bit cooler but I really can’t complain about anything that I’ve done tonight."
Beisel, who will turn 20 on Aug. 18, was in deep trouble early in the finals.
She finished the first 100 -- the butterfly -- last in the field of eight.
An impressive backstroke moved her into second place at the halfway mark, trailing only Katinka Hosszu of Hungary.
On the third leg, the breaststroke, Beisel seized the lead by a body length over China’s Shiwen Ye.
Ye turned on the jets for the freestyle and beat Beisel by more than a length.
Ye’s time of 4:28.43 shattered the world and Olympic record of 3:29.45, set by Australia’s Stephanie Rice four years ago at Beijing.
Beisel set a personal record of 4:31.27.
"Any time you can go best time these days is pretty special," she said, "so I’m just really excited right now."
China’s Xuanxu Li took the bronze medal in 4:32.91, trailed by Hosszu in 4:33.49.
Beisel placed fourth in the medley at the Beijing Olympics, where she also took fifth in the 200 backstroke.
She came back to win the 400 IM at last year’s World Championships, then led qualifiers in Saturday morning’s heats in 4:31.68.
"I think that I have a big dart on my back since last summer," she said after her qualifier. "A medal would be nice, but I’m just concentrating on my time."
Second place in the finals sure felt a lot better than fourth, even if she did lose the lead on the final leg.
"I knew that the Chinese were going to be able to bring it home. That’s how they swim it, so I knew I was in a little bit of trouble when they were that close," Beisel said. "But I can’t control what they do and they had a great race too. So I’m just happy."
Schmitt anchored Team USA to a heat victory and second place overall (to Australia) in the first round of the 400-meter freestyle relay.
Despite an American record of 3:34.24, Team USA dropped one spot in the finals, behind the Aussies (Olympic-record 3:33.15) and the Netherlands (3:22.79).
Missy Franklin led off, followed by Jessica Hardy and Lia Neal, with Schmitt on anchor.
Former Georgia star Amanda Weir and Natalie Coughlin also earned medals by swimming the morning round (3:36.53).
"This is a great group of girls," Schmitt, who swam on the fourth place relay (and ninth-place 800 free relay) at the 2008 Olympics, said after prelims. "We were getting ready to swim fast and that’s what we did."
In the men’s 400 freestyle finals, former Florida standout Conor Dwyer finished fifth in 3:46.39. He qualified third in the morning heats, timed in 3:46.24.
China’s Sang Yun struck gold with an Olympic record of 3:40.14. Taehwan Park of South Korea took silver, with Team USA’s Peter Vanderkaay getting bronze.