Ryan Lochte's eyes appeared to be misting as he stood atop the podium at the Oriental Sports Center on Thursday night. As The Star-Spangled Banner played to honor the winner of the men's 200 individual medley, the most thrilling race witnessed at the 2011 Swimming World Championships so far, Lochte seemed to briefly tear up. Was he basking in the satisfaction of having beaten 14-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps for the second time this week? Was he buzzing about his blistering time of 1:54.00, the first long-course world record since rubberized suits were banned 19 months ago?
Not at all, Lochte told reporters later. He was thinking about the pain he'd be suffering in his next event that session, the semifinals of the 200 backstroke.
"That's probably one of the hardest races for me," said Lochte, who would qualify first for Friday's final nonetheless. "I had to forget about what happened in the 200 IM and just get focused."
Such is the life of one of the most versatile swimmers in history. There's no time for rest or reflection, no letting the guard down in any event. Especially when the competition includes another member of the small versatility club, who also happens to be a highly decorated Olympian who hates to lose.
Phelps, who thought he had beaten Lochte to the wall in the 200 IM but was clocked at .16 behind, was so peeved immediately after the race that he uncharacteristically rushed past reporters in the mixed zone to "gather my thoughts," as he explained later at a press conference.
"I can't be upset with that race," he said on reflection. "It's faster than I went at the Olympics. I think I was more upset [because] I thought I had it on the last stroke. I felt myself gaining, gaining, gaining. But it is what it is, I fell short."
As he stared daggers into the carpet in front of him, he continued: "I think that race is going to be a lot of motivation over the next year. There's a lot of frustration right now going through my head. Yeah, this is going to help me through the tough months of training for the next year."
The World Championships still have three days to go, but in terms of the top storyline for London, the most important results are in. Lochte and Phelps, who are both swimming four individual events here, have met in the two events they share, the 200 free and the 200 IM, and the score is Lochte 2, Phelps 0, by a total winning margin of a sharp intake of breath: .51 seconds. That means the 12 months between now and the London Olympics will include a lot of pain for both of them as Phelps tries to regain his dominance and Lochte tries to stay a fingernail ahead. But the competition doesn't end with head-to-head races. Lochte won't say it out loud explicitly, but he would surely love to beat Phelps' record of eight gold medals in an Olympics.
Asked in April about the possibility of winning nine golds, Lochte, who has just one individual gold among his six Olympic medals, said, "You have to look at the schedule. Because swimming those events at the Olympic level is definitely hard. What Michael did in Beijing was amazing, unbelievable. Every time you step up there, you have to lay it out and you have to win. It's hard. But other people could do it."
"I think he could but it's so difficult," said Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman. "You have to think about [Phelps' win in] the 100 fly by .01 of a second. And you have to think about the 4X100 free relay [which Jason Lezak rescued with the fastest relay split in history.] That was a miracle, right? I told Michael going in: The way this gets done is you are impeccably prepared, you swim the best race every time and you get lucky somewhere. That's what happened. We got lucky twice, really. So without those, it's six golds and everyone is like, Same as Athens [in 2004]. So there are very small margins. That's why I think it's going to be hard to do again."
What seems clear from Worlds is that both Phelps and Lochte will win gold medals in London. But two of them will come at the cost of the other. That's a shame for the USA's gold-medal tally, but it's a boon for fans of go-for-broke racing like we saw Thursday.