Friday, January 19, 2018
Sports

Michael Phelps takes Round 2 vs. Ryan Lochte at U.S. Olympic swimming trials

OMAHA, Neb.

What did you expect? Surrender?

After all, Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer ever to get wet. He is arguably the finest Olympian of all time. He is on the short list of the most dominating athletes any of us have ever seen.

Given all that, how did you think Michael Phelps would react to his greatest challenge? By letting his sport pass him by without a final kick?

If you had any doubts about America's freshest rivalry, it is, as they say, on. Phelps struck back Wednesday night, barely holding off Ryan Lochte to win the 200-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic trials. This was no longer Phelps the legend. This was Phelps the competitor. From the looks of things, he still remembers how to touch the wall.

Around the pool, it is fair to say the doubts were growing. As great as Phelps has been, he hasn't done much since the 2008 Olympics, and the sight of Lochte celebrating another victory over him has become routine. It has been easy to wonder how much the calendar might have evened the competition.

Still, there are reasons Phelps has won 14 gold medals. He has faced up-and-comers before. He has dispelled other doubts. Put it this way: If a man spends most of his life chasing history, he is bound to fight the notion of being history.

As for the rivalry? You can now score it one for the Great One and one for the Next One. Oh, and you might wish to stay tuned.

"Neither one of us like 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 of more this week. That's how it seems to shake out whenever we're in the water."

It is delicious stuff, this building rivalry between Phelps, 27 on Saturday, and Lochte, 28 on Aug. 3. It is a showdown-in-the-street, sword-fight-on the-castle-wall kind of competition. Over the years, swimming has seen a lot of great swimmers — Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi, Ian Thorpe — who have taken turns ruling their sport like a succession of kings. On the other hand, there haven't been a lot of head-to-head, anyone-can-win rivalries. Thorpe, the great Australian, had Pieter van Den Hoogenband for a while. Gary Hall Jr. of the United States and Russia's Alexander Popov seemed to enjoy tweaking each other.

But if Lochte is ready — and the former Gator looks it — and if Phelps still has enough juice — and he looks it — then this could be a duel to build an Olympics around. You have a swimmer who is on his way out vs. one who is finally arriving. You have accomplishment vs. audacity. How can the world resist?

Don't we all love a rivalry? Magic-Bird or Frazier-Ali or McEnroe-Borg or Russell-Chamberlain or Nicklaus-Palmer or Corleone-Barzini? This promises to provide a whole summer's worth of fun.

That said, neither swimmer seemed particularly pleased Wednesday night. Lochte groused about his slow start. Phelps moaned about his turns. Neither seemed pleased with his time.

"I was pretty upset with the times," said Phelps. "In my eyes, (his time of) 1:45.7 is not going to make the medal podium (in the Olympics)."

Still, it had to help Phelps to win again after Lochte's repeated wins, including in Monday's 400 individual medley.

"Sure, he was a little frustrated," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' longtime coach. "There's always psychological stuff going on. It's always good to win. Winning is never bad."

Imagine this through Phelps' eyes. By his admission, he has been "kind of destroyed" by Lochte over the past few years. The nerve. The last time we saw either in an Olympic competition, Lochte was just another swimmer in another lane chasing Phelps as he disappeared into the distance. Now, beating Lochte may be a greater challenge for Phelps than chasing down Spitz and the rest.

Imagine this through Lochte's eyes. Phelps is a legend, but as Lochte said the other day, "He's not a fish. He's human." Lochte has been hotter, and Phelps hasn't been the same intimidating force he was four years ago. You get the feeling he's not in awe.

The other day, for instance, Lochte said the strangest thing about Phelps: "It's a rivalry that we have had for almost eight years now, and we just have been switching back and forth. It's hard to say who is the best swimmer because we're both great racers, and we have been going back and forth for so long."

Huh? The plain truth is Lochte's resume — or his gold collection (three) — isn't anywhere close to Phelps'.

On the other hand, winning a gold medal isn't about comparing legacies. It's about swimming faster. It's about shaving seconds.

Take Wednesday night, when Phelps won by .05 of a second. That's a better turn. That's a slightly faster start. That's a slightly better finish.

Soon to come: a slightly better race.

And one after that. And that. And that.

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