IRVINE, Calif. -- After finishing the first preliminary of the 400-meter individual medley in less than 4:10 on Thursday morning at the Pan Pacific Championships, Americans Ryan Lochte and Tyler Clary walked past Michael Phelps, who was on his way to the pool for the third and final heat.
"I told them both, 'Thanks guys, you enjoy the final tonight. I'm not going that fast,'" Phelps said. "And they were both like, 'Yeah right, yeah right.'"
Clary, whose time of 4:09.20 was the second-fastest behind Lochte (4:07.77) and nearly five seconds faster than his mark at nationals 10 days earlier, was particularly suspicious of Phelps' claim. And since only two Americans could reach the final, he had the most to lose.
"I've learned to never trust anything like that when he says it," Clary said. "To be honest, he hasn't swum the event in quite a while. But I wouldn't be surprised if he dropped something big here in a minute or so."
So, a few minutes later, there was Clary, watching on a flat-screen television to see if it would be him or Phelps in tonight's final. The screen was nothing more than an image of the pool, with no timing to help Clary know where he stood.
"How is there no clock on this?" he asked.
When Phelps turned for the fourth and final discipline of the race (freestyle) and the stadium announcer told the crowd the Olympic champion was at 3:15.80, Clary walked away from the television and headed back to the athlete training area. He felt confident he was safe.
For the 21-year-old, it was a bit of redemption after Phelps and his coach Bob Bowman said earlier this week that they elected to race the 400 IM because they were relatively unimpressed by Lochte's and Clary's times at nationals. Lochte's and Clary's times this morning both broke the Pan Pac record set by Phelps (4:10.47) four years earlier.
"I had heard he was underwhelmed by the 400 IM at nationals," Clary said. "I don't take that personally, but I do take it as good motivation."
Phelps' time of 4:15.38 was the fourth-fastest in qualifying, behind Lochte, Clary and Brazil's Thiago Pereira. After the heat, Phelps, the defending Pan Pac champion and world-record holder in the event, described how he felt as "painful" and added he wasn't kidding when he wished Lochte and Clary well.
"They could have thought I was trying to be coy, but I was being dead honest," Phelps said. "I knew 4:07 was nowhere near being in the tank."
But Phelps wasn't entirely disappointed in his performance. Outside of the Olympics and Olympic trials, he said he couldn't remember many times when he had swum the event that fast in the morning. As for what the future holds for him in the 400 IM, the event his mother, Debbie, calls her favorite, that remains to be seen.
"I think it's going to have to be a better-judged decision when we get back into good solid training," Phelps said. "I think that was OK, but obviously nowhere near or close to where I want to be and where I think I can be."
Only two can tango in Pan Pacs finals
One unique aspect of the Pan Pacs is that only two swimmers from one country can appear in the "A" final. For an ultra-competitive swimming country like the United States, that often means the morning preliminaries are just as important as the final.
The rule often seems to penalize larger swimming powers like the U.S. and Australia, while creating opportunity for less competitive countries like Brazil. Both sides of the rule were evident Thursday, when American Jessica Hardy won her heat and turned in the fourth-fastest time in the 100-meter freestyle preliminary (54.35) and yet was relegated to the "B" final thanks to the times of teammates Dana Vollmer (54.01) and Natalie Coughlin (54.09).
Vollmer and Coughlin had the benefit of pushing each other in side-by-side lanes in the seventh and final heat.
"I thought I was going fast enough," a frustrated Hardy said. "But yeah, I guess that was a big disadvantage."
Hardy's coach, Dave Salo, said his swimmer was "pissed" by not qualifying for the "A" final.
"I told her that we should use that and see what she can do," he said.
The flip side of the story involved Brazil's Cesar Cielo, the world-record holder in the 100 freestyle. Cielo, who won the 50 free Wednesday night, swam an unimpressive 49.13 in his qualifying heat Thursday morning, nearly three seconds off his world-record pace. Though his time was the 10th-fastest of the morning, he will still be one of the eight to swim in the final after bumping Australian James Magnussen and American Garrett Gale-Weber to the B final.
After the disappointing performance, Cielo's coach, Australian Brett Hawke, refused to let his swimmer speak to reporters and instead answered the questions of what went wrong himself.
"He was just too relaxed," Hawke said. "He wasn't prepared, not mentally, not physically. He took it too easy. He doesn't have the pressure of the U.S. or Australians to be in the top two, so mentally he just switched off.
"He's in the final -- luckily -- but he has to get his head ready tonight if he wants to win."