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Michael Phelps of the U.S. reacts after taking third place in his men's 200m butterfly heat at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre July 30, 2012. (DAVID GRAY/REUTERS)
Michael Phelps of the U.S. reacts after taking third place in his men's 200m butterfly heat at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre July 30, 2012. (DAVID GRAY/REUTERS)

Swimming

Michael Phelps faces the music at London 2012, keeps dancing Add to ...

Has the great swimmer been shaken, not stirred? His confidence popped like a water bubble?

Michael Phelps looked at his questioners Monday, and gave no hint of annoyance or acceptance.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with confidence,” the American replied evenly. “I think I was ready and I just didn’t race well.”

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To be blunt, Phelps didn’t race at all in the 400-metres individual medley in which he went from 2008 gold medalist to 2012 fourth-place finisher.

It was such a stunning defeat many at the London Aquatics Centre and elsewhere have begun to wonder aloud if Phelps has the power and mindset to be close to the swimmer he was four years ago.

The answer to that could come Tuesday. Given the silver medal he won as a member of the U.S. 4 x 100-metres relay team the other night, Phelps could reach the podium in the 200-metres butterfly, his prized event, and the 4 x 200-metres relay thus becoming the all-time medal winner in Olympic history.

Currently, he has 17, 14 of which are gold. The record is 18, held by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina.

Phelps will pass that mark – but it won’t happen as easily as first thought. Losing badly to teammate Ryan Lochte on opening night made sure of that.

“Oh yeah, that was a message,” said Cayman Islands freestyle swimmer Brett Fraser, a former teammate of Lochte’s at the University of Florida. “He’s put in all the work and he deserves the results. He’s a great swimmer.”

Phelps’s overall brilliance is beyond question. Winning eight medals in a single Olympics, the way he did so masterfully in Beijing in 2008, guarantees that otherworldly status. And Phelps’s measure goes beyond medals.

When other swimmers talk about Phelps, they do it in a reverent tone, the same way hockey players talk about Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.

Canadian butterfly specialist David Sharpe put it this way when speaking of Phelps: “He’s been the best for 10 years. People have had to adjust. You look at what he does. He’s made it more leg driven. … He’s really changed the event.”

The backstage drama to Phelps’s crushing loss in the 400 IM was why he was even swimming it. After Beijing, he announced he was done with the event, a gruelling, four-stroke torture test.

His coach, Bob Bowman, kept saying: “We’ll see.” After the recent U.S. Olympic trials, where Lochte won the 400 IM, Phelps announced he was dropping the 200-metres freestyle from his Olympic dance card and keeping both the 200 and 400 IM.

Losing so badly to Lochte, while missing the podium altogether, cast an interrogator’s light on Phelps/Bowman’s decision. Both used much the same word to describe Phelps’s placing: “Crappy …horrible.”

Did they miscalculate somehow? Perhaps underestimate just how much better the rest of the swim world has gotten?

Neither is willing to go down that lane just yet. Bowman, though, did acknowledge: “I honestly don’t think it’s a fitness issue. He just didn’t … I just don’t know. In the long run, it’s ultimately a fitness issue of what he hasn’t done over four years. So yes.”

Yes, something isn’t quite right. What we’ve seen so far is a good swimmer, not the great one.

Now comes the 200 fly, where Austrian Dinko Jukic and American Tyler Clary will be charging, and the relay, where anything can happen. Tuesday is when we’ll see what the 2012 Michael Phelps is made of.

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki