IRVINE, Calif. - What would Ryan Lochte do on the final day of the U.S. Swimming National Championships Sunday? He’d hold off Michael Phelps to win the 200-meter individual medley in the best race of the meet for both swimmers, who each ended their meet on a high note with a stunning finish. To be fair, both swimmers had their ups and downs during the five-day meet that served as a qualifier for the Pac-Pacific Championships in Gold Coast, Australia later this month and the World Championships in Kazan, Russia next year.
But this race saw flashes of the old stars going stroke for stroke, well ahead of the field.
"That was pretty exciting," said Lochte, who touched the wall in 1:56.50, just ahead of Phelps in 1:56.55. "It was a good one for the old guys."
Both Lochte, 30, and Phelps, 29, showed signs of rust during the week. Phelps returned to competition in April after 18 months away from battles in the pool. Lochte was recovering from a bad knee injury he suffered in January when a teen-age girl recognized him on a Florida street and tried to jump into his arms. Lochte tried to catch the girl, but instead tumbled to the sidewalk with her. He tore the MCL and sprained the ACL in his left knee when it hit the curb.
The 11-time Olympic medalist missed four months of training.
"This year has been the toughest of my life so far," he said. "Both physically, because I haven’t been in the water much, and the mental part because I haven’t been able to put in the work."
Lochte left little to chance on Sunday. He swam a blistering first two legs in 53.97 seconds to open a body-length lead on the field and a 1.36-second lead over Phelps, who was challenged by Tyler Clary and Conor Dwyer at the first two walls.
"I didn’t really mean to go out that fast," Lochte said. "It’s like I didn’t trust myself to swim it evenly, so I was holding on."
Phelps responded with a superb finish in the butterfly and freestyle legs and was right on Lochte’s shoulder as the pair touched.
"It felt really good getting this win under my belt, because my confidence wasn’t really there,” Lochte said. “I’ve always relied on my training. This year the training wasn’t there."
Still, it wasn’t a complete loss for Phelps, who suffered through a surprising seventh-place finish in the 100 free to begin the week.
"Being able to finish with a swim like this is better than where I was at the beginning of the meet. Ryan and I both hate to lose, but we love to race each other ... That was a lot less painful than a lot of the hundreds I’ve been swimming. Maybe I need to start swimming more 200s again ... It’s almost like I don’t have the speed, but I seem to have the endurance."
On the one hand, the meet marked the first time since 2000 that he competed at a national championship and failed to come home with at least one title. That season, he pulled perhaps the surprise of the Olympic trials, when he finished second in the 200-meter butterfly as a 15-year old and then placed fifth in the race at the Sydney Games, his first appearance at the Olympics.
On the other, Phelps left the William Woollett Aquatics Center relaxed and joking on Sunday, free from the presumptions of victories and records that he felt hung over him in 2012. This is borrowed time that he is relishing.
"I can’t do it because my coach wants me to do it this time, "he said. "I can't do it because my mom wants me to do it. I have to do it because I want to ... I’m actually pretty hungry to get back in the pool now. I really wasn't feeling that before London. I was in the pool then for I'd say not all the right reasons. Now it feels right. Even if the results aren’t there yet, it feels right.'
- The meet did not finish as well Sunday for Natalie Coughlin. The 31-year old with 12 Olympic medals placed sixth in the 50-meter freestyle in 24.97 seconds, her last chance to make the Pan-Pac team. Simone Manuel won the race in 24.56. "I don’t think I have been to a meet before where I literally have done everything I could to be ready," Coughlin said after the race. "Sometimes you need that extra kick, that salt in the wound." Coughlin said she was suffering from food poisoning leading up to the meet. She also said she has every intention of trying to make her fourth Olympic team in 2016.
- USA Swimming announced its coaching staff for Pan Pacs on Sunday: Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman of North Baltimore Aquatic Club was already announced to lead the men and Teri McKeever, who coaches Missy Franklin and Cal-Berkeley, will lead the women. Bowman’s staff will include Georgia’s Alex Braunfeld, Arizona’s Rick DeMott, a 1972 Olympian, and Yuri Sugiyama. McKeever’s staff will include Carolina’s Dave Marsh, Stanford’s Greg Meehan and Bruce Gemmell, who coached Katie Ledecky in McLean, Va.