They were in the ready room, together for the last time. Just days from retirement, Michael Phelps had been checking things off his aquatic to-do list, saying as he entered the room for each session, "This is my last semi," or "This is my last prelims." On Thursday night, he said to Ryan Lochte, who has been a familiar presence at his side in competition pools, on podiums and in rooms like this one for the past decade, This is our last 200 together.
"We just kind of joked around about it," said Phelps. It was no time for deep reflection or shared memories. The relentless pace of the Olympic swim competition beat on, and the world was waiting for them to attend to the business that had riveted Olympic swimming fans for months: Who would win the Phelps-Lochte showdown, part 2?
And so the two men stepped up to the blocks for the 200 IM, the most anticipated swim race of the London Games. The result wouldn't settle anything historic: Phelps' gold medal in the 4x200 free relay on Tuesday, his 15th gold and 19th medal overall, had sealed his place as the most decorated Olympian of all time. And when it came to head-to-head matchups with Lochte, Phelps was overwhelmingly on the plus side over the past ten years. But Phelps had yet to win an individual gold medal in London and he was 0-1 against Lochte this week. Part 1 of their showdown, the 400 IM, had fizzled when Lochte blew away the field and Phelps struggled to a fourth-place finish. But since that race, Phelps had seemed to gain strength while Lochte faltered. As anchor of the 4x100 free relay, Lochte failed to hold the lead his teammates, including Phelps, gave him (a tall order, granted, against France's sprint star Yannick Agnel) and in the 200 free, an event he won at worlds last year, he came in fourth. In Thursday's 200 backstroke, the event he won in world-record time in Beijing, Lochte finished third, behind Ryosuke Irie of Japan and teammate Tyler Clary, who won in an Olympic record of 1:53.41. Now, just 31 minutes removed from that leg-killing swim, Lochte had one last race, one last chance to prove that he was more than the 400 IM champion, that this was indeed "My time" as he had said repeatedly.
In lane 3 Phelps did his signature pre-race routine, whipping his arms together front and back, three times; in lane 4 Lochte, as always, tuned the flapping sound out. After the starter's tone, they hit the water in unison and churned toward the wall in the butterfly version of synchronized swimming. At the wall Phelps, the better butterflier, had a .16 second advantage. The next lap, the backstroke, is where Lochte usually catches up. But he lost more time, flipping at the wall in third. After the breaststroke leg, he was over three-quarters of a second behind Phelps, and still in third, behind Brazil's Thiago Pereira. In the final freestyle leg, he called on whatever fuel he had left to pass Pereira and gain on Phelps, who was on world-record pace for the first three and a half laps. But Lochte ran out of lane, if not steam. Phelps touched in 1:54.27, just .04 off the former world record he set in Beijing. Lochte was .63 behind, in second.
It took him six days, but Phelps had finally won an individual gold medal -- his 16th gold and 20th Olympic medal overall -- and become the first man to win the same Olympic swimming event three times. Afterward, he clasped Lochte's hand and then stood in the pool and looked around, absorbing the atmosphere as he flashed three fingers to the crowd. Eventually he and Lochte glided to the side of the pool, where they exchanged a few words -- "Just joking, nothing ever serious," said Phelps later -- before getting out.
And so ended what has been the best rivalry the sport of swimming has ever witnessed. Neither of the finals the two shared in London were as close as the trials in Omaha in June had suggested they'd be, but little in London had gone as predicted for either man. The last chapter of their shared story was not so much about domination or perfection as it was about fallibility, resilience and humility. On Thursday, just a few days after expressing relief that he had dropped the 200 free before coming to London -- "Those guys would have smoked me," he said -- Phelps talked Lochte up in their shared press conference. "I may have been lucky that Ryan had the 200 back 30 minutes beforehand," said Phelps of his win in the 200 IM. "Ryan can probably swim faster than what I did tonight."
His meet over, Lochte, who turns 28 on Friday, said he was somewhat disappointed he hadn't won gold in every event he entered. "Whenever I step on the blocks I always want to win; it's just the mindset I have," he said. "Sometimes you don't. Overall I can't be too disappointed, I am coming home with five Olympic medals (two golds, two silvers and a bronze) That's something to be proud of."
Those five medals, along with four from Beijing and two from Athens, tie Matt Biondi's 11 for the second most Olympic medals accumulated by an American male after Phelps, who could still get two more medals in his remaining events, the 100 fly (Friday) and the medley relay (Saturday.) It is, by all standards but Phelps', an abundance. Would Lochte have achieved it without Phelps to race and chase all these years?
"It helped out a lot," said Lochte of Phelps's impact on his career, which he intends to extend to 2016. "He is the toughest racer I've ever had to deal with. Hopefully I'll still be able to see him around. I'm going to miss racing him."