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Lochte erases any lingering doubt with commanding victory in 400 IM

LONDON -- Three thoughts off Ryan Lochte's win in the first swimming final of the Olympics:

1. Ryan Lochte finally beat Michael Phelps on the biggest stage -- and it wasn't even close. Lochte won the 400-meter individual medley in 4:05.18, two seconds faster than he was at Olympic Trials and more than three and a half seconds ahead of silver medalist Thiago Pereira of Brazil. Japan's Kosuke Hagino took bronze ahead of fourth-place Phelps, who came in at 4:09.28. Lochte took the lead after the first butterfly leg and just kept building over the final 300 meters. Phelps was second after 100 meters but faded on the backstroke and breaststroke. Once it got to the final 100 meters of freestyle, the question was whether Phelps would medal. He didn't for the second time in his 18 Olympic swims (the other being a fifth as a 15-year-old in the 200 fly in 2000).

2. There are no doubts surrounding Lochte now. Yes, Lochte has been the world's best swimmer for the better part of two years. But there was still a crack of concern about Lochte being able to perform at the Olympics, against Phelps especially. In 2004, Lochte was a wide-eyed Olympic rookie and absolutely thrilled to win silver to Phelps' gold in their only head-to-head, the 200 IM. In 2008, Lochte's only individual gold came in a non-Phelps event, the 200 backstroke. Phelps whipped him in the 200 IM and 400 IM. In both Athens and Beijing, Lochte showed other signs of not handling the Olympics well, from a McDonald's-dominated diet to a stomach virus contracted from tap water in Beijing. We know Lochte's changed. He's said he's given up junk food. He throws oversized tires and drags gigantic chains as part of his strongman training in Gainesville, Fla.. Lifestyle improvements, combined with his impressive record against Phelps the last two years, makes the following claim justifiable after just one Olympic race: If there was any doubt about him, Ryan Lochte erased it. He'll be the favorite in the 200 free, 200 back and 200 IM and part of the heavily favored 4x200 free relay team. Five golds is not only possible, it's probable.

3. Don't count out Phelps yet. Remember, Phelps had dropped the 400 IM from his repertoire after the 2008 Olympics. At the time, he wanted to lighten his load for his final Olympics, and the 400 IM was his most grueling race. Phelps only picked it back up this year, and you could make an argument six months wasn't enough time to get back to his best form in this event, known as the decathlon of swimming. Phelps still has three more individual events -- the 200 butterfly (Tuesday), 200 IM (Thursday) and 100 butterfly (Friday) -- and remains the favorite in both butterflies. Barring disqualification, he'll win a medal in the 4x100 freestyle relay on Sunday, probably not gold though, and enter Tuesday with two gold chances (200 fly, 4x200 free relay). If he medals in his next three swims, Phelps will surpass Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina as the most decorated Olympian ever.

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