When Michael Phelps and the American 4x100-meter freestyle relay team finished a surprising third on Sunday at the world championships, the 14-time gold medalist was pragmatic about the disappointment.
"It's a good thing that it's not the Olympics," said Phelps. "We have time to prepare and get ready and change some things."
It's a mantra Phelps will be repeating to himself a lot in the upcoming 36 months. For the second time at this week's world championships in Shanghai, Phelps was upset by American teammate Ryan Lochte, this time in a thrilling 200 IM race Thursday night that saw Lochte set the first world record of the meet. If Lochte's win earlier this meet in the 200 free was a shot at Phelps' dominance in the sport, this was the decisive blow.
There's no more question about it: Ryan Lochte is the best swimmer in the world. But will he be when the Olympic Games start next July 27 in London?
Phelps saw this coming. His "it's a good thing that it's not the Olympics" comment was a self-fulfilling prophecy. He made it on Sunday, before all the individual events and before Lochte had a chance to beat him twice. It was like he knew what was coming and convince himself beforehand that it wasn't a big deal.
Maybe it's not. Like other great champions in individual sports -- Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Usain Bolt -- Phelps gears his game to the big events. The world championships qualifies as one of those, but they're no Olympics. Phelps-Lochte is just beginning. It won't be until London that the rivalry will begin to take shape.
In the meantime, the worry for Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, is how the great champion responds to the challenge? He's been winning dominating meets since he was in the 10-and-unders. He made an Olympic team at age 14. At Beijing, he completed the greatest Summer Games in the 112-year history of the competition. Now, for the first time in his life, he's not the favorite every time he steps on the block.
Will he wilt under the pressure? Is this going to be the motivating factor that pushes him to new heights? Is this going to be Ali-Frazier or Russell-Chamberlain? It's not like Lochte is lapping the field in his recent victories. Thursday's win was by 0.16 seconds. Monday's was almost as close. If Phelps doesn't feel he's at 100 percent, making up the ground is feasible.
Then again, Lochte may not be at 100 percent either. Phelps isn't the only one keeping one eye on the world championships and another on London.
The era of Michael Phelps dominating the pool is over. Can he prevent Ryan Lochte from doing the same?