SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Michael Phelps emerged from the water with an unfamiliar look of disappointment splashed across his face. A glance at the scoreboard only made things worse.
Even in tuneup races, losing streaks for Phelps are rare.
The planet's most recognized swimmer lost for the third straight time in one of his signature events Sunday night, finishing a tenth of a second behind Australia's Nicholas D'Arcy in the 200-meter butterfly at the Santa Clara International Grand Prix.
"I would have liked to get the win and end the drought of getting my butt kicked every race, but Nick and I have had some good races over the past couple years and he's definitely a tough competitor and he finishes really strong," Phelps said.
The 14-time Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder was hardly at his dominating best, getting chased down in the final 25 meters. D'Arcy touched the wall a finger tip ahead at 1 minute, 55.39 seconds.
"If you had asked me if I'd win at the 100 mark, I'd say no. If you'd ask me at the 150 mark, I'd say maybe," D'Arcy said. "I snuck a peak out of the corner of my eye and saw him, and I thought, 'Well, I have a chance.'"
Phelps took comfort in the close finish outdoors in simmering Silicon Valley and believes he's on pace to be at full-strength for the world championships next month in Shanghai. Still, Phelps hadn't lost the 200 fly in almost nine years and now has dropped three straight.
The two other defeats this year came to China's Peng Wu in USA Swimming's grand prix series. D'Arcy was second to Phelps at last year's Pan Pacific championships but stopped short of saying he's gaining ground on Phelps.
"It's always great to beat somebody who's possibly the greatest athlete who ever lived," said D'Arcy, who didn't qualify for the worlds because he was recovering from left ankle surgery at the time. "Any chance you get to beat him, you've got to take it. I don't care that it was one-tenth of a second."
Phelps chalks up the losses to part of the training process.
He spent most of the last month in high altitude in Colorado Springs, exhaustingly increasing his workouts. He also will compete in the 100 fly and 200 free in Montreal in two weeks to make some last-ditch adjustments.
One thing is for sure: Phelps will have to be better when the world championships begin July 16 if he wants gold.
"Before I went to Colorado, I think I was in nowhereland," Phelps said, chuckling. "And I feel like I'm kind of somewhere now. I'm in somewhereland hoping to move toward, well, I don't know what comes after that. Hopefully somewhere in the right direction."
Phelps has certainly improved since earlier this year.
He finished fourth in the 200 fly in Ann Arbor, Mich., before moving into second behind Wu in Charlotte. His preliminary time Sunday morning also was more than 5 seconds slower than the final, and he credits his training for the improvement.
Even though it's a non-Olympic year, Phelps believes this is an important one for his future. He's going to change his event schedule ahead of next year's London Games, competing in less taxing races to maximize his output.
Phelps already has said he won't try to repeat his record haul of eight gold medals in Beijing. The rest of this summer will help decide his final schedule.
"I'm actually in a lot better place mentally than I was a couple months ago and a couple weeks ago," Phelps said. "Being able to come down from altitude and being able to do some of the work I did there I think is going to pay off the rest of the summer."
Among the other notables Sunday: Daniel Bell held off Ryan Lochte to win the 100 backstroke; Lochte also was second in the 200 individual medley to Thiago Pereira; Eric Shanteau took the 100 breaststroke; and Ricardo Monasterio won the 1,500 freestyle.
On the women's side, Kathleen Hersey won the 200 fly; Jessica Hardy was first in the 100 breaststroke; Emily Seebohm was victorious in the 100 back; Ariana Kukors won the 200 individual medley; and Wendy Trott was first in the 800 free.