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Tough to judge Michael Phelps’ seventh place in 100m freestyle

Aug 6, 2014, 10:30 PM EDT

Michael Phelps Getty Images

IRVINE, Calif. – Michael Phelps stood on a podium to receive a medal at the U.S. Swimming Championships, but he wasn’t draped with gold on the top step. Not the second, either. Nor third.

Seventh.

Phelps finished next to last in his first U.S. Championships final since coming out of retirement (video here), chalking up his worst result in a Nationals event in the last several years to an unusual mistake.

Olympic champion Nathan Adrian won the 100m freestyle in 48.31 seconds over a decorated field with Phelps.

Ryan Lochte, who was the slowest qualifier into the eight-man final, was second in 48.69.

Phelps swam 49.17. The top four men — Adrian, Lochte, Jimmy Feigen and Conor Dwyer – made the team for the Pan Pacific Championships, the biggest meet of the summer.

The most decorated Olympian of all time blamed the slow time on an error in an area he’s usually world class — turning off walls.

“I barely touched the 50 wall,” said Phelps, indicating a poor turn halfway through the race. He was in last place at the 50m mark and the third-fastest swimmer over the final 50m.

“I thought I had the right distance to go into the wall, and when I literally took a couple kicks and I was barely past the flags, I knew there was very little chance that I was going to run anybody down.”

Phelps went 48.77 in the morning prelims, four tenths of a second faster than his final time.

How much better would Phelps have been in the final without the wall blunder?

“It would have been faster than it was this morning,” Phelps said, had he turned off the wall well. “It kind of sucks I won’t really know what I was.”

A clearer look at his form will come in Phelps’ final three events in Irvine, beginning with the 100m butterfly Friday. Assuming he hits that wall.

Phelps, 29, is at the fifth meet of his comeback after a 20-month competitive retirement following the 2012 Olympics. He has not committed yet to swimming through the 2016 Olympics.

Lochte, who turned 30 on Sunday, is in his second meet since retearing his left MCL in April.

“I am glad I pulled this out, but this is just the start,” Lochte said.

The 100m free final dragged overall. Even Adrian was slower than his morning prelim time.

The U.S. Swimming Championships are a selection meet for the biggest international meet this year, the Pan Pacific Championships in Gold Coast, Australia, from Aug. 21-24.

Once swimmers make the U.S. team for Pan Pacs in any event, including relays, they can enter extra events once they get to Gold Coast. Therefore, Phelps could still swim the 100m free at Pan Pacs, if he makes the team in another event.

Phelps had not competed in the 100m free at Nationals since the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials. He has not done it at a major international meet since the 2007 World Championships.

But he has long been part of the U.S. 4x100m free relay team, winning gold at the 2008 Olympics, silver in 2012 and bronze in 2004.

Phelps and Lochte are slated to go head to head in three more events through Sunday.

In other events Wednesday, four-time Olympic champion Missy Franklin came from behind to clip Simone Manuel in the women’s 100m free. Franklin clocked 53.43, the fifth-fastest time in the world this year.

“I knew that Simone was right next to me, and she always goes out fast,” Franklin, the rising California sophomore, said on Universal Sports. “So I knew that I was going to have to come home hard.”

Manuel (53.66), Shannon Vreeland (54.14) and Abbey Weitzeil (54.38) rounded out the top four to qualify for Pan Pacs.

Twelve-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin was seventh.

Female World Swimmer of the Year Katie Ledecky cruised in the 800m free, winning in 8:18.47, eight seconds slower than her world record from June. Cierra Runge was second, 6.22 seconds behind.

Connor Jaeger and Michael McBroom, who went four-five in the 1500m freestyle at the 2013 World Championships, went one-two in it Wednesday night.

Tom Shields, who was one spot from making the 2013 World Championships team, booked his first Pan Pacs berth, winning the 200m butterfly in 1:55.09.

Shields shaved more than two seconds off his personal best with the third-fastest time in the world this year. Olympic 200m backstroke champion Tyler Clary was second, all but wrapping up a Pan Pacs spot.

Cammile Adams won the women’s 200m fly in 2:07.12, the sixth-fastest time in the world this year. Adams was fifth in the event at the 2012 Olympics.

Katie McLaughlin finished second in 2:08.74 to pencil her name on the Pan Pacs roster, too.

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