OMAHA -- It may have been Michael Phelps's 27th birthday, but it was the sellout crowd of 14,335 at Omaha's CenturyLink Center that got a treat on Saturday. In another head-to-head race with Ryan Lochte that delivered suspense and goosebumps are there two other athletes anywhere who so reliably deliver on their hype? Phelps won the Olympic trials 200-meter individual medley, touching the wall in a world's best time of 1:54.84, nine one-hundredths of a second ahead of Lochte and nearly four seconds ahead of third-place Conor Dwyer. For those keeping score at home, that gives Phelps two close wins to Lochte's one in their three head-to-head matchups here so far.
"It feels good to be back on that side," said Phelps, who finished second when Lochte set the world record in the 200 IM at the World Championships in Shanghai last summer. "But I'm sure that's not going to be the end of us going back and forth."
As gutty as Phelps' win was, there's no question Lochte had the more impressive performance of the night. In the space of an hour he won the 200 backstroke, holding off a hard-charging Tyler Clary to win by less than half a second; he nearly beat Phelps in the 200 IM, and he qualified 6th for the finals of the 100 butterfly, an event he rarely contests. Even Phelps, who has had his share of overloaded schedules over the years, was impressed. "He's tough," he said. "You saw that tonight. He got up and raced three very challenging races and did them well."
But not without cost. "Tonight was probably the most pain I've endured in a swimming competition," said Lochte. "Going back-to-back-to-back was definitely hard, but I was up for the challenge. It's something I've been training for the last four years so I knew I was able to do it."
A significant part of Lochte's training has been weight work, both the Strongman version, where he flips tractor tires, heaves beer kegs in the air and whips heavy ropes, and more traditional power circuits that include squats and Olympic lifts like cleans and snatches and jerks. "Basically everything is designed to make him a better jumper because jumping is highly correlated to better starts, better walls and a great streamlined dolphin kick," says Matt Delancey, Lochte's strength coach at Florida.
Lochte, who has no peers aside from Phelps as an underwater kicker, has made a signature of the third wall in 200 meter races. That's where he explodes off the wall and dolphin kicks underwater for about 15 meters, usually popping up ahead of the field if he wasn't there already. In the 200 backstroke, the third wall is where he caught Clary, who had been leading at the first two turns.
"I think underwaters are all about pain tolerance," says Delancey. "Think about holding your breath; it doesn't feel good. You have to have a real huge lung capacity and you have to have a real considerable pain tolerance to swim, hold your breath that long underwater and then come up and still swim fast. That's something Ryan has a lot of, the ability to endure. Of all the athletes I've ever seen or trained, Ryan is number one in pain tolerance."
The 200 IM, coming so quickly after the 200 back, had to hurt. Showing no mercy for his still recovering rival, Phelps set a punishing pace in the butterfly leg. "I kind of used Ryan having the 200 back before," said Phelps, looking not the least bit remorseful. "I set the pace early. I know the 200 back longcourse is really tough race, and it takes a lot out of your legs. I wanted to try to jump on it the first 100 and see what happened, but I think our backstroke we let off a little bit. We were playing the cat-and-mouse game again. The last lap we raced like crazy."
Just like the 200 freestyle race earlier this week, the two matched strokes the whole way. Though Phelps led throughout, it was never by much: his cushion was .02 after the backstroke, .26 after the breaststroke and just .09 in the end, the closest men's 200 IM finish in trials history. "I think you're going to see some more races like that over the next few weeks," said Phelps. "We kind of seem to like to play with each other, if one person goes, the other one goes.
Lochte's decision to swim the 100 fly was surprising, especially given what else was on his plate Saturday evening. But it's a boon to the crowd that will flock here Sunday night. The Phelps-Lochte showdown will continue for one more night. Though he qualified 6th, 1.12 seconds behind Phelps, the two-time Olympic champ and current world record holder, Lochte isn't swimming the finals tomorrow as a lark. "I'm going up there to win it," he said. "My legs will be a little bit rested and hopefully I can put a better show than I did tonight."