Now we know: Ryan Lochte was waiting, too.
And four years ago, after failing to realize expectations that he would challenge Phelps in Beijing, he stopped waiting and started changing. And that's how Saturday night happened -- Lochte shredding the field in the brutal 400-meter individual medley and taking gold-medal real estate that had belonged only to Phelps in the last two Olympic Games. And it wasn't even close, with Lochte finishing 3.68 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor and 4.10 seconds ahead of Phelps. On top of that, Lochte's 4:05.18 is the fastest the 400 IM has ever been swum without the high-tech swimsuits that were banned in 2008.
[ Photos: Lochte vs. Phelps in the 400m medley ]
This time around, Lochte charged out in the first 50 meters -- too hard by his own estimation -- and was never seriously challenged after the 150-meter mark. This despite keeping a constant eye on the scoreboard the entire race. That's how the "duel in the pool" between Phelps and Lochte became nothing more than a transfer of power -- a coronation for a guy who is aiming to ascend to the top of the U.S. swimming throne. And we likely should have seen it coming when Phelps barely qualified for the event in preliminaries. After it was over, Phelps congratulated Lochte on keeping the 400 IM in U.S. hands, despite his own disappointment at not being able to do the job himself.
And who knows -- maybe Phelps knew after his preliminary swim that this was going to be Lochte's moment. Phelps has never loved the event. He only kept swimming it because he hated backing down from a challenge. Maybe Phelps knew Lochte wanted this event more than he did. No matter the reasons, it was on Lochte to finally seize it after repeating all week that he was ready to take the reins in the program.
"This is my year," Lochte said. "I know and I feel it. I put in hard work. I've trained my butt off for four years. I just feel it inside my gut that this is my year."
[ Related: Michael Phelps's 'crappy' first swim raises red flag ]
Not that his performance in Beijing in 2008 was anything less than spectacular. Lochte left those Games with four medals -- two gold and two bronze. But the problem was that people were expecting something Phelps-ian. Indeed, many thought he was the one who would and could end Phelps's world dominance on that stage. Instead, his only individual gold came in an event that Phelps didn't swim (the 200-meter backstroke), and his two individual bronzes came in events Phelps dominated (the 200 and 400 IMs).
What we didn't know at that time -- and what we'd find out later -- was that Lochte was still being Lochte. After hearing about all of his focus and reforms, he spent his Olympics in China dining on McDonalds and gaining weight. And the fallout was predictable. He looked like the same sleepy-eyed, undisciplined kid that kept suffering foolish injuries right before major competitions. The same kid who once asked his dad for cigar money 10 minutes before the 200 IM final at the 2004 Athens Games. Lochte lost to Phelps in Athens, too.
But all of those realities are why Saturday night came with such satisfaction for Lochte, too. Whenever he made changes for the better, he did it on his own timetable. He was slightly more focused for the Beijing Games, and he saw slightly better results. But he also left with the realization that he left something on the table -- that Phelps was human and beatable. And that if he changed maybe just a little more, he could be the human to beat him.
[ Video: Raising an Olympian -- Ryan Lochte ]
"I don't really have regrets because I live my life the way I want to live," Lochte said. "Yeah, I've been injured plenty of times for doing stuff that I probably shouldn't have been doing. But you know what? That's me."
"Beijing, I was young," Lochte said. "I changed some things after Beijing in my diet [and] in my training. I've just gotten a lot faster since then. All the stuff I've been changing, if I would have known that years ago, Beijing would have been a different scenario for me. But you live and learn."
You live, you learn, and you keep stacking medals. Lochte now has seven Olympic podiums, including four golds. With four more events set in stone in London (200 freestyle, 200 backstroke, 200 IM and 4x200 freestyle) and possibly one more to be added (4x100 medley relay), he could capture six gold medals in these Games. Only Phelps and Mark Spitz have done more in Olympic swimming. But that work is just getting started, albeit with the toughest event in his schedule.
"I don't know if this puts me as one of the world's greatest," Lochte said. "I mean, I hope so. That's not really my decision."
Then again, maybe it is his decision. Ask Lochte after these Games are over. He's still living and learning.
See related Olympics content on Yahoo! Sports:
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• Ryan Lochte sets his sights on gold –- and Michael Phelps -– in London
• Y! Sports exclusive: Michael Phelps turns tables on childhood bullies