Thursday July 30th, 2009

Ryan Lochte stepped out of the shadows on Thursday night and set his own world record, one of 29 set at these world championships. With teammate Michael Phelps watching from the stands, Lochte took down Phelps' mark in the 200-meter individual medley, lowering the record Phelps set at the Beijing Olympics from 1:54.23 to 1:54.10. Lochte led the race at every 50-meter segment and held off Hungary's Laszlo Cseh by a second.

"That was an awesome swim," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' personal coach and the head coach of the U.S. team here. "I thought Ryan swam it exactly right. The pacing was perfect. That's the way a record should be broken. ... Michael had already predicted that the record was going to go. Ryan trained for it and he deserved it."

Say this for Lochte: he has never complained about the mainstream lack of respect over the last few years for being the second most versatile swimmer on the planet. From one day to the next, Lochte may show up with pointy hair or silver teeth, but his attitude remains consistent. At least once a meet he'll answer a question by saying something like "whatever whatever," and leave you to figure out what it means. On some days, the only thing reflective about Lochte is the glasses. But there is nothing fake and there are no hard feelings toward Phelps. "Not at all," insists Lochte, whose three Olympic golds include two relays and the 200 back in Beijing. "Michael did such a good job of making a name for swimming. I love a challenge. I love racing against him. I wish he could have swum the 200 IM, because I think it would have been a good race."

For Cseh, the race was another in a long line of finishes behind American swimmers -- often Phelps, but this time Lochte. "Every time I look up, I see one of the American swimmers," says Cseh, who has three silvers and a bronze on his Olympic resume. "They never leave me alone."

After the race, Lochte sat with wires taped to his legs to help relax his tired muscles. He was left to explain his frequent use of the word "jeah," an expression he picked up from Lil' Wayne videos. "It means almost everything," Lochte explained. "It's like happy. If you have a good swim, it means good. So I guess it means good."

***

One of swimming's most colorful and enjoyable characters, Brazil's Cesar Cielo, added his name to the record book on Thursday. Cielo outswam Frenchmen Alain Bernard and Fred Bousquet to win the 100-meter freestyle in 46.91 seconds. The victory cemented Cielo's name as one of the top swimmers in the world; he won the 50 free at the Beijing Olympics, where he became the first Brazilian to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. Australia's Eamon Sullivan had set the previous record for the hundred in Beijing in 47.05.

The emotional Cielo was alternately laughing, crying and flexing for the cameras after the race in Rome. When he dared reporters to "ask me anything," one of his countrymen asked if he thought he could ever become as popular as the nation's great soccer stars. "If Real Madrid wants me, I'll take it," Cielo said. "Hey, I'm not in swimming to get money or fame; I want to enjoy my sport and finish my career on a happy note."

Mark those words, because Cielo isn't always a happy chap. He is one of the more intense training machines who sometimes loses a screw in the pool. During his Auburn days, he once flung a kickboard through an open doorway and pelted an unsuspecting female teammate, knocking her out practice for the day. On the award stand here, as he did in Beijing, Cielo cried. "Everything about me is emotional," Cielo said. "Sometimes I get too emotional, but that's why I feel so happy now, because things mean that much to me and I work so hard to do what I do."

Cielo may have won with his arms and legs, but Brett Hawke, Cielo's Australian-born mentor during his days at Auburn, was taking no chances. He took Cielo's goggles to the Vatican earlier this week and dipped them in holy water, a gesture to honor Cielo's Catholic background.

Before the race on Thursday, Cielo said he felt he had "an extra thousand pounds on my back. I couldn't feel my hands. I couldn't feel my feet. Brazil doesn't always have a chance to fight for swimming medals. I needed to get on the blocks before I could relax."

The race also matched Cielo with Bousquet, a training partner at Auburn, where their competitiveness often gets the better of both. "They're so intense that some training swim turn into intense races," says Hawke. "Some days I have to split them up so they save it for the races."

This time, it was Bousquet who turned first at the 50-meter mark and Cielo who beat him to the finish. "He is a great friend," Bousquet said. "Maybe he will agree to another race in half an hour."

Brian Cazeneuve will be filing daily for SI.com from the world championships. He can be reached at siwriters@simail.com.

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