Phelps barely holds off the best swimmer you've never heard of
OMAHA -- They wore matching high-tech Speedo LZR suits and swam in a temporary pool designed for speed. But even as Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte pushed each other through a dramatic record chase at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials on Sunday night, what brought the crowd of 12,000 to its feet was not merely the clock but also the sight of the greatest swimmer in the world struggling -- in one of his best events, the 400-meter individual medley -- to fight off an unexpectedly formidable rival.
After Phelps built a body-length lead in the butterfly leg, Lochte, the world-record holder in the 200 backstroke, flipped onto his back for the second 100, watching himself gain ground on Phelps via the Jumbotron above the pool. After the breaststroke leg, a Lochte strength, the two were virtually even. As the frenzied crowd roared, the two pushed off the final wall, with Phelps ahead by a fingernail. "I didn't want to lose that race," said Phelps later. "I did whatever I could to get my hand on the wall first."
Both swimmers broke Phelps's year-old world record of 4:06.22. After he had outtouched Lochte by .83 of a second to win in 4:05.25, Phelps gave his worthy adversary an over-the-laneline embrace. Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, called the final "one of the best swims I've ever seen." Phelps described it as "one of the most painful races of my life."
The final was certainly the biggest challenge Phelps has faced in the 400 IM since he first set a world mark in the event six years ago, and an indication that his quest in Beijing to equal or better Mark Spitz's 1972 haul of seven gold medals may be even harder than anticipated. "My hat's off to Ryan, because like a bulldog, he wouldn't let go," said Olympic great John Naber, who watched the race from the stands. "You [still] make the Olympic team by finishing second. The third-place guy was seven seconds back. Why hurt yourself to finish first here? They are both such racehorses. I predict an equally exciting race in Beijing. This isn't over."
The 400 IM was just the opening salvo in what promised to be a full week of Phelps-Lochte showdowns. They could face off in as many as four events here, including the 200 IM, in which they went one-two at the Athens Olympics, and the 200 back, expected to be one of the most hotly contested races on the schedule. Both of those finals are on Friday. Tonight, Phelps figures to nail down another Olympic berth in the 200m freestyle final. (Lochte qualified as the first seed in that event in Monday's semifinals but pulled out in order to focus on the finals of the 100m back, which are also tonight.)
Although Lochte became the first person in seven years to beat Aaron Peirsol in the latter event when he set his world record at the 2007 world championships in Melbourne, he has never beaten Phelps in any long-course (50-meter pool) race. But Lochte believes it's just a matter of time before he does. "Some swimmers are swimming for second against Michael, because they don't feel they can beat him," he says. "I'm the total opposite. I feel I can beat him."
Lochte thought Sunday could have been the night. "It was my best time, but I hate to lose. I don't like it at all," he said. "As soon as I touched the wall, I knew there were a bunch of places during the race that I could improve. That's what I'm going to do this month. Hopefully I'll be a lot faster in Beijing."
Phelps considers Lochte one of his best friends on the national team -- they bonded four years ago over a mutual appreciation of hip-hop music and girls -- and he loves racing him. "Having Ryan next to me helped me go that fast," Phelps said after the 400 IM. But he won't admit to getting any special motivation from Lochte when they aren't going head-to-head. "I'll report a time that Ryan or someone else did, and Michael will be like, So?" says Bowman. "Meanwhile I'm thinking, Wow, I need to work on your breaststroke! I'm the one who is more affected by what the competition is doing. To Michael, it's all the same. He's going to do his race, and he doesn't care what the other people do. I think that's part of his secret."
Likewise, Lochte, 23, a two-time NCAA swimmer of the year at Florida, isn't laser-focused on Phelps. "I don't wake up and think, Michael Phelps," he says. "I'd go crazy if I thought that [way]. I'm just trying to become the best swimmer I can be -- and trying to become the best swimmer in the world."
Many people think he'd be just that if his 23-year-old rival had chosen another sport. "If Michael Phelps wasn't around, Ryan Lochte would be Michael Phelps," says Phelps's Club Wolverine teammate Erik Vendt. "It's rare enough to have one swimmer like that, but two at the same time?"
Lochte grew up in a swimming family. His mom, Ileana, coached him -- and frequently kicked him out of practice for screwing around -- until he was 11, when his dad, Steve, a former junior college All-America, moved the family from upstate New York to Florida to start the Daytona Beach Swimming club team, which he still coaches. But Lochte's identity has never been entirely wrapped up in the sport. He surfs, he skateboards, he emulates his musical idol, the rapper Lil Wayne, by sporting colorful shoes on his feet and diamond-studded grills on his teeth. But behind the perpetually sleepy voice and the mellow surfer-dude facade is a meticulous organizer ("His T-shirts have to be hung up on hangers, pressed and coordinated by color," says Steve) and a tough-as-nails competitor.
Lochte has a history of sustaining worrisome injuries just weeks before major competitions, but he has never let them get in the way of his training or performance. While playing a game of manhunt with friends one night as a high school senior, he fell 20 feet out of a tree. He suffered a concussion, amnesia and a severely bruised shoulder. Yet three weeks later at the U.S. nationals in Fort Lauderdale, he won the consolation final of the 400 IM and qualified for the Pan Am Games. Five weeks before the 2007 worlds he lost control of his scooter while riding it in Gainesville, Fla., and flew 47 feet before landing in some bushes. Though doctors initially feared he had broken several bones, Lochte escaped with a hairline fracture in his right foot and a constellation of bruises. He missed just one afternoon of practice and went on to win five medals in Melbourne. This year's medical scare came courtesy of Carter, Lochte's seven-month-old Doberman puppy. While chasing after the runaway canine one day last month, Lochte fell and severely twisted his left ankle. Again, he missed only one afternoon of practice. "When I found out it was a high-ankle sprain, not a broken bone, I thought, That's par for the course. We're [still] on track," says Steve.