OMAHA, Neb. – Round One to Ryan.
Now we all wait to find out how many rounds there are to go.
Ryan Lochte, Sham to Michael Phelps' Secretariat four years ago, won convincingly but not overwhelmingly in the 400-meter individual medley Monday night, as their rivalry set the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials on fire. Almost literally.
During the race, pyromaniac Trials officials set off poolside flames during the breaststroke leg – a WWE touch that did not escape the notice of the combatants.
"I saw a bunch of flames and thought, 'What is going on?' " Lochte said.
Here's what was going on in the water, at precisely that time: Lochte was torching Phelps and the luckless Tyler Clary on the breaststroke leg, surging away and then cruising through the freestyle to win by .83 seconds. Phelps, who has made a legendary, multimillion-dollar living out of finishing first, got the all-important second-place finish over Clary to clinch a spot on the Olympic team.
On this night, that would have to do.
"We knew this was a distinct possibility," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach. "We had no illusions."
The clear-eyed view after one night here is that Lochte is prepared to back up his claim that "this is my time." He's been the world's best swimmer the past couple of years, while Phelps has been searching for his A-game.
Bowman said a 4:07 was the target time for Phelps, and he hit it at 4:07.89 – still four seconds off the world record he set in Beijing. Lochte, meanwhile, showed how high his expectations are by saying he wasn't very happy with his 4:07.06 – even though it is the fastest in the world this year.
"That time was not good at all," Lochte said. "I know I'm capable of going way faster."
[Slideshow: Lochte wins head-to-head first showdown with Phelps]
It was in that flame-throwing breaststroke leg where we saw a snapshot of how the tables have turned in the Lochte-Phelps battle over the last four years. At Beijing in 2008, Phelps pulled away from Lochte and Hungarian Laszlo Cseh in the breast to win Olympic gold convincingly and smash the world record. Monday night in the CenturyLink Center, it was Lochte thumping Phelps by 1.23 seconds on the third leg of the race to take control.
"Lochte's breaststroke is better," said Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, after the race. "Michael's breaststroke wasn't bad. … It's obviously pretty good competition; he just kicked our ass."
The two will hook up again Tuesday in the 200 freestyle, where they're seeded 1-2 with Lochte in first. They'll have preliminary heats in the morning and semifinals in the afternoon, with the final contested Wednesday night.
Beyond that, we're left reading the tea leaves about who is swimming what. Nobody is publically committing to much – especially Lochte.
Coach Gregg Troy made mention of "seven more swims" Monday night, but then when questioned about that said the plan was "fluid" and could change daily. Not much is certain, but this is: If Lochte attempts to qualify in eight individual events, it would be the most ambitious Trials gameplan in history.
"We're going to pick and choose day by day," Lochte said. "And tomorrow I know I have the 200 free so I'll take each day at a time."
[Fourth-Place Medal: Phelps' first loss in a U.S. trials final since July 13, 2004]
He's also entered in the 100 backstroke (and seeded fourth) Tuesday but made no mention of that. So that might be one of his 11 entered events that he scratches. (Eleven was never even a remotely realistic number.)
Here in 2008, Phelps swam – and won – five individual events. He's entered in another six in these Trials but probably won't swim them all – especially after the physical expenditure swimming the 400 IM.
Bowman's fond of saying that the hard work of training is a process of making deposits in the bank, and swimmers make withdrawals on race day. So I asked him how much Phelps withdrew Monday night, and how that will affect him the rest of this week.
"I have absolutely no idea," Bowman said. "That will be our question for tomorrow."
Phelps swore off this meat-grinder after dominating it in 2008, saying he was done with the hardest event in swimming. But eventually he came back around – just in time to finish second and punch his ticket to London. The question is whether this will compromise his ability to make the team in other events.
"Bob and I had tried a lot of different things and played around with a lot of different ideas, but it came down to that I wanted to do it," Phelps said. "This is an event I've done for a long time, and I'm happy to finish off my career with. … So, coming off this I'm pleased."
It's a different world where Michael Phelps is pleased with second place and Ryan Lochte is angry that he didn't beat his Olympic nemesis by more. But that was the reality here Monday night, when Round One went to Ryan.
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