Kicking off the first of his seven events at the eight-day meet, Phelps led off an eventual disappointing bronze-medal showing in the relay Sunday at the Oriental Sports Center. It was the first time since 2007 that the American men lost a relay of any kind at worlds or the Olympics.
Phelps said “it’s frustrating, it’s not how we want to start it.”
They were upset by the Australians, who got an opening-leg split of 47.49 seconds from James Magnussen and went on to win in 3 minutes, 11.00 seconds. Magnussen was joined by Matthew Targett, Matthew Abood and anchor Eamon Sullivan, a former sprint world record holder.
“We knew we weren’t going to be in the mix on paper,” Sullivan said. “We knew we had the experience and the young ones to surprise people.”
France took the silver in 3:11.14 and the American team of Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Jason Lezak and Nathan Adrian earned the bronze in 3:11.96.
Weber-Gale swam the slowest of the Americans, with his 100 split timed in 48.33.
“I feel sick about it. It’s a huge disappointment to get bronze,” he said. “It’s pretty embarrassing for me to go slow like that and it’s disappointing to feel like it was my fault that we did poorly.”
Lezak, the 35-year-old whose sizzling anchor leg at the Beijing Olympics preserved Phelps’ successful bid for eight golds, swam the Americans’ second-slowest split of 48.15.
“You can’t go in and have two guys swim great and two guys swim average and expect to win,” he said. “Unfortunately, I was one of the average ones.”
The Americans were 2 1-2 seconds faster winning the gold at worlds in Rome two years ago.
“It’s a good thing that it’s not the Olympics,” said Phelps, who swam 48.08 on his opening leg. “We have time to prepare and get ready and change some things.”
Asked what needed changing, he replied, “Clearly need to be faster. That’s the easiest thing.”
Ryan Lochte, who swam in the morning heats, didn’t return for the final. U.S. men’s coach Eddie Reese defended the decision, saying, “He was third-best this morning.”
“This wasn’t a very good relay for us,” Reese said. “Why? We call it human beings. We had splits that were not at all like we thought it would be.”