Ryan Lochte pulled off his goggles, shook his auburn locks from his swim cap and stared hard at the scoreboard across the pool. After a quick calculation he slapped the water in disappointment. In winning the 200-meter individual medley in 1:54.43 for his sixth victory at the Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine, Calif., last week, Lochte fell .33 of a second short of becoming the first swimmer to set a world record in the post--buoyancy suit era. "I knew I was going to go fast, but I didn't know I was going to go that fast, that close to the record," said Lochte, who wore the knee-to-hip textile jammer that has been de rigueur attire for male swimmers since new suit rules took effect last Jan. 1. "Once I figured that out, I was like, Man, if I had just taken one or two more dolphin kicks, I would have had it."
Lochte may not have snapped the world record (his own) in Irvine, but as a consolation he did upset swimming's world order. As Lochte hauled in six gold medals—which might have been eight had he not bowed out of the 100 backstroke final and the medley relay to remain sharp for other events—Michael Phelps, the man who established swimming's gold standard with eight wins in Beijing, continued to show the effects of a prolonged post-Olympics layoff. Phelps won the 100 and 200 butterflies and had three strong relay legs, including a world-best 48.13 leading off the 400 free relay, but he failed to make the final in the 400 IM and pulled out of the 200 IM, citing a lack of fitness. While Phelps was trying to catch his breath, Lochte eclipsed him as the sport's alpha fish.
"Ryan has proved that today—present tense—he is without a doubt the best swimmer in the world," says NBC analyst and three-time Olympic gold medalist Rowdy Gaines. "I say that with some trepidation because we all know what kind of shape Michael's in. I think if Michael wants to, he will take over that role, easily. He may not want to. Everyone says this will fuel his fire; now he's going to get motivated. But what do you do after 14 gold medals?"
That's not a concern for the 26-year-old Lochte, who has just one individual gold, in the 200 backstroke in Beijing, in his pile of six Olympic medals. Unlike Phelps, Lochte didn't take a huge chunk of time off after the 2008 Games, choosing instead to take a lot of three-day breaks from training. That was in addition to the unplanned four weeks off he had last fall after undergoing surgery for a meniscus tear in his left knee, sustained while break dancing in his apartment in Gainesville, Fla. "Ryan lives on the edge a little bit, but to race the way he races, you have to be on the edge a little bit," says his coach, Gregg Troy, who has shepherded Lochte through a number of other nonswimming injuries, including the twisted left ankle he sustained chasing his dog a month before the '08 Olympic trials. "In some ways this injury was a plus. All the other injuries were kind of minor. This one, he had to see a surgeon, and it took a long time to come back. It clarified how important swimming was for him, and I think that made him a little more responsible, a little more mature as an athlete."
The knee surgery had other benefits: Lochte rebuilt his breaststroke to put greater emphasis on his upper body, which has in turn helped his freestyle. And he replaced a lot of his breaststroke training with butterfly work, a plus for his IMs. Lochte also changed his diet, trading fast-food burgers and sodas for salads and lean meats. "As you get older, you realize whatever goes into your body is going to affect you later on," he says.
Lochte may have become more professional in his approach to swimming, but he remains a friendly free spirit whose unfiltered personality makes him a favorite among teammates, coaches, fans and sponsors. "Everyone loves Ryan," says fellow American star Natalie Coughlin. "He has a funky style and his own swagger, but he has a clear sense of who he is. He's very true to himself. And he's funny, just being Ryan. He's always saying, 'Jeah!' which isn't even English."
Actually, it's urban slang that roughly translates to wow, something one might have said often while watching the U.S. team last week. The host country won all but seven of the 34 gold medals at the meet—considered the most important competition of 2010—and saw the successful return of two female stars who had been on extended breaks since Beijing. Coughlin, an 11-time Olympic medalist who turned 28 on Aug. 23, stayed out of the pool for 17 months "to reflect and relax." She also got married, brushed up on her cooking and gardening skills and competed on Dancing with the Stars. Aside from dancing, Coughlin stayed fit by doing Pilates and running up to 10 miles a day, so she wasn't starting from scratch when she got back in the pool in January. Yet she was surprised by her performances in Irvine, which included a gold in the 100 free and a bronze in the 100 back. Says Coughlin, "I'm ahead of where I thought I'd be."
The same could be said of Amanda Beard. After giving birth to her first child, Blaise, last September, the four-time Olympian didn't start serious training again until March. But with the help of a strict Paleo diet, a stricter military-style personal trainer in Tucson, where she lives—"He'll have me running in 110° heat dragging a 60-pound sled behind me," she says—and reordered priorities that forced her to be more efficient in her training, Beard, 28, dropped the 50 pounds she gained during pregnancy and got back up to speed faster than she expected. Last week she secured a spot on next summer's world championship team as the second-best American in both the 100 and 200 breaststrokes. "Amanda blew me away at nationals, and she has been better here," said USA Swimming coach Mark Schubert. "It has been a jaw-dropper for me."
As impressive as Coughlin's and Beard's returns were, the standout woman was Rebecca Soni, who just missed world records in both the 100 and 200 breaststrokes. While a lot of her competitors have slowed drastically in the wake of the suit ban, the 23-year-old hasn't faded at all. "I was never really into the suits that much," says Soni, the 2008 Olympic champion in the 200 breast. "I never really learned how to use them, I guess."
"Rebecca is just fast," says Beard. "Not that long ago I thought no one could go the times she's doing."