World Championships: Mission Aborted: U.S. DQ in 400 Medley Relay Puts End to Phelps’ Chase for Eight

By John Lohn

MELBOURNE, Australia, March 31. MICHAEL Phelps' bid for an eighth gold medal at the World Championships was taken out of his hands this morning when the United States was disqualified in the preliminaries of the 400 medley relay. The U.S. touched first in the heat, clocking 3:34.72, but an early takeoff by Ian Crocker on the butterfly leg led to the DQ.

With Scott Usher coming into the wall from the breaststroke leg, Crocker went for a quality start, one that turned out to be too good, as he left the blocks just before Usher's hand hit the touchpad. The disqualification prevents Phelps from swimming on the medley relay at night and the chance to go 8-for-8. If Phelps win the 400 individual medley tonight, he'll have seven gold medals.

"We thought we were being conservative," said Neil Walker, who was on the freestyle anchor. "It's disappointing because Michael was trying to do something that has never been done. This is the type of thing that happens. There's no other explanation. We thought it looked fine on the replay. It looked like Usher touched and Ian's toes were still on the block. But, that's not what the official reading said."

Ryan Lochte handled the opening backstroke leg before turning it over to Usher. At that time, the U.S. was just behind Japan, but there should have been no need for a risky start. Crocker is the world-record holder in the 100 fly and was obviously going to put the Americans in front before Walker hit the water. At night, the U.S. was expected to go with Aaron Peirsol, Brendan Hansen, Phelps and Jason Lezak.

This is the second disqualification for the United States in the 400 medley relay in the past four World Champs. They were also DQ'ed in 2001 in Fukuoka, Japan. During the preliminaries, where there's nothing to win and everything to lose, it's rare that an athlete will try to hit a stellar takeoff. Crocker, though, is known as one of the best in the world at it and surely felt he wasn't taking a gamble.

Japan ended up as the top qualifier, with a mark of 3:37.04, ahead of the 3:37.16 by Russia and the 3:37.17 by South Africa. For the United States, it was the first big mishap of what has been an unbelievable week. The American men have gone gold-silver in five events.

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