OMAHA, Neb. — Ryan Lochte shifted his weight back and forth. He lifted one foot, then the other, shaking each over the water’s edge as if to make sure they were ready for this. For the next two minutes, he needed his feet, his arms, his legs, everything he had. He had stood in this position three times before, in the final of the 200-meter individual medley at the U.S. Olympic trials, and each time he had walked off the pool deck finishing second to Michael Phelps.
Four years ago, when Phelps retired after the London Games, Lochte refused to believe it. He knew Phelps would be back. He needed him to be back. In any other era, Lochte would have been the greatest swimmer of his generation. Instead, he was Patrick Ewing to Phelps’ Michael Jordan. But now, in their last race on American soil, in the event Phelps has for so long dominated, Lochte had his chance to touch the wall before his rival and put a final twist on that narrative.
When the eight finalists in the event paraded onto the pool deck, Phelps and Lochte came out last. In the tunnel, Lochte accidentally stepped on the heel of Phelps’ shoe, giving him what Phelps referred to as a “flat tire.” “He was like, ‘You trying to mess me up?’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no,’ ” Lochte said. ” ‘I was just joking.’ “
Their banter continued behind the blocks. “I was pissed,” Phelps said later, smiling. “He caught me by surprise. We were both just enjoying ourselves.”
From the start, Phelps jumped out to an early lead. The 14,000 fans in the arena roared. Phelps led by .14 seconds at the first turn, and Lochte closed the gap to just .04 in the backstroke leg, his strength. With the race half finished, each had a chance. But up next was the breaststroke leg, and Lochte’s legs were shot. He’d pulled his groin in that leg of the 400 IM five days earlier and battled pain all week. He and coach Dave Marsh adjusted his breaststroke kick to try to make it less painful. But it hadn’t entirely worked.
Equally challenging was the emotional drain the injury had taken on Lochte. The first night it happened, he worried his Olympic trials were over. There would be no Rio. The family and friends who had booked tickets, the sponsors who were counting on an Olympic appearance to push their products — all of them were going to be disappointed.
But with extensive massage therapy, ibuprofen and a distinctively high tolerance for pain, Lochte pressed on. Now he tried to push the pain out of his mind one last time. At the final turn, Phelps widened his lead to .19 seconds, swimming the breaststroke leg .12 seconds faster than Lochte.
Phelps looked out of the corner of his eye. He saw Lochte. He knew he held a slim advantage. The image was almost exactly the same as four years ago. The same two swimmers, in the same two lanes, Phelps slightly leading on the final turn. On this night, too, they would charge home side-by-side, as fans in CenturyLink Center rose to their feet. With 25 meters to go, the water churning, it was nearly impossible to tell who was winning. Phelps knew it was anyone’s race. He kicked as hard as he could. “Our races usually come down to the touch,” Phelps said. “And I just wanted to get my hand on the wall first.”
He did. Again. By one-third of a second. Phelps: 1:55.91. Lochte 1:56.22. The final chapter of their Olympic trials story ending the same way it began.
When it was over, Lochte looked to the scoreboard above and saw the “2” next to his name. He headed to the lane line that had separated him from Phelps for the last two minutes. They embraced. Lochte offered congratulations then bobbed in the water, trying to catch his breath, the weight of the moment not lost on him.
“It was like, ‘Wow, our journey is coming to an end,’ ” Lochte said. “This is something I’m definitely going to cherish for the rest of my life. Our last time racing against each other on U.S. soil. Something I really tried to take to heart.”
Said Phelps: “It’s crazy that we’ve been racing each other for 13 years. That’s the last race on American soil you will see. It’s pretty cool — a lot of amazing races.”
After leaving the pool deck, Lochte hobbled down a set of stairs, using both hands to support his weight with each step. He looked to be in pain, his gait resembling someone far older than a world-class swimmer who will turn 32 two days before the opening ceremonies in Rio. Phelps, meanwhile, hurried off the deck to prepare for the semifinals of the 100-meter butterfly, an event in which he finished sixth. “Tonight was brutal,” Phelps said. “That 100 fly hurt.”
You might think there would be bitterness, jealousy or frustration from Lochte, that he would resent Phelps for having the kind of career he wished he could have had. Without spending his career chasing Phelps, though, Lochte says he truly believes he wouldn’t have accomplished what he has. The 11 Olympic medals. The two world records that still stand. The World Swimmer of the Year Award. Friday night, he was disappointed but appreciative.
“I wouldn’t be the swimmer I am today if I didn’t have Michael,” he said. “We both push each other and bring the best out of each other.”
Neither Phelps nor Lochte was thrilled with his final time, despite being the second- and third-fastest in the world this year. Lochte’s coach, David Marsh, was especially frustrated and said he expected more from Lochte in the race after he cruised to a 1:56.71 in Thursday night’s semifinals. In a way, he blamed Phelps.
“I think Ryan raced Michael rather than swimming his best race,” Marsh said. “That’s what it looked like to me. He didn’t execute a few of the pointers he was supposed to and that’s because he was swimming with Michael.”
During the next five weeks, Phelps and Lochte will become teammates one last time. They will train together, eat together, at some point play cards together. And do whatever they can to get faster together.
And then, if all goes as expected in preliminaries and semifinals, they could meet for one final time on the night of Aug. 11 in Rio in the final of the 200 IM. It would be Lochte’s final chance to beat his rival.
“When you look at just the metrics, you have to say Michael owns him,” Marsh said. “But the reality is, is he capable of beating Michael? Absolutely. Absolutely he is.”