OMAHA, Neb. – Round 2 of the Michael Phelps-Ryan Lochte rivalry was great drama, great television and great competition.
It wasn't great swimming.
That was the blanket assessment after Phelps got ahead, stayed ahead and (barely) out-touched Lochte in the 200-meter freestyle by five one-hundredths of a second Wednesday night in the U.S. Olympic Trials. That evens the score in finals at these trials at one victory apiece.
It was close and competitive, but at 1 minute, 45.7 seconds, it was not terribly fast. In fact, it wasn't even Phelps' best time of the year – and until now he hasn't really had a world-beating year.
Citing a wealth of international competition, led by world-record holder Paul Biedermann of Germany and Park Tae-hwan of Korea, Phelps flatly said his winning time "is not going to make the medal podium" in London. And clearly, these guys aren't in the business of competing for fourth.
The reason for the slow time is actually a testament to this compelling rivalry: Phelps and Lochte are so consumed with racing each other – and so respectful of the other guy's talent and will – that in the words of Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman, "they forgot to swim fast."
Phelps likened it to a game of cat and mouse. But it appears both guys want to be the cat and neither wants to be the mouse.
Thus it was a waiting game in the middle of the CenturyLink Center pool on Wednesday night: Phelps in Lane 5, watching Lochte in Lane 4; Lochte in Lane 4, watching Phelps in Lane 5. And when neither committed to a sprint, there was no need for a counter-pounce from the other.
It took about 125 meters of positioning and eyeballing each other before they pushed it into high gear and went for it.
As Lochte told Phelps during the post-event medal awards: "I guess we're going to have to take it out a lot faster."
But for Mr. and Ms. America watching at home, a slow-but-close race is every bit as exciting as a fast close one. And this one was stroke for stroke the entire way.
Without much in the way of pure speed in the race, Phelps took the lead into the 50-meter turn by .08 seconds over Lochte. At the 100-meter mark, the lead was .06. With both guys fully engaged into the final turn, Lochte had shaved another hundredth off the lead – and after blasting through the underwater appeared to get a head in front.
But Phelps finished like a 14-time Olympic gold medalist. He said Tuesday that he would have preferred being on the other side of Lochte – Phelps breathes to the right, and it's easier to see swimmers on that side. Nevertheless, Phelps knew exactly where the competition was and pounded home the finish – keeping his head down, after lifting up and starting to turn to the scoreboard in the final meters during the semifinals.
"I definitely wanted to correct that," Phelps said.
Having finished properly, the view of the scoreboard was much more satisfying Wednesday night than it was Tuesday. Lochte won the semi by .02, coming on the heels of winning the 400 individual medley Monday night. Now Phelps has evened the score in finals.
Barring an unforeseen disaster, the two will hook up again in the 200m individual medley final Saturday. Unless Lochte stays in the 100m butterfly (he's seeded fifth, with the final set for Sunday) that will be their last head-to-head battle in Omaha.
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Too bad they both can't swim everything. Because the sight of the world's two best swimmers side-by-side has made swimming a lot of fun to watch. The ratings for London will be enormous when this rivalry advances to the grandest stage.
By then we'll have a better idea of whether or not Lochte can back up his proclamation that, "This is my time." King Michael still appears to be operating on Phelps Standard Time, not anybody else's clock.
"Neither one of us likes to lose," Phelps said. "… We're going to have a lot of races like that, over the next couple of weeks and probably a couple more this week. That's how it seems to shake out whenever we're in the water. I think one of the things that I always do is I race as hard as I can in the pool. I race from start to finish of a race, and I never let up."
Ryan Lochte certainly already understands that, but it was reinforced Wednesday night. Michael Phelps isn't going to hand anyone his crown; the challenger will have to forcibly take it.
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