The return of Michael Phelps to the pool meant that one of the best rivalries in swimming history could be renewed. Friday’s final of the men’s 200-meter individual medley didn’t disappoint. As other storylines emerged from the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha, this one didn’t change. Here are several stories from Day 6 of the trials:
The Michael Phelps—Ryan Lochte rivalry added another superb chapter on Friday, as Phelps held off Lochte to win the 200-meter individual medley in 1:55.91. Lochte was second, .31 seconds behind. David Nolan, the third-place finisher, was a full 3.18 seconds behind Phelps. It was as if the supporting players got out of the way and let the stars have the spotlight early. In fact, from the opening butterfly leg, when Phelps went out in 25.05 and Lochte followed in 25.19, the order of the top two remained the same for all four strokes, as Phelps’s lead edged from .14 to .07 to .19 to the final .31. Simply, this was a great two-man confrontation that lived up to what the swim giants had done throughout their careers.
Between them, they own 33 Olympic medals and it’s easy to see each of them winning one in this race in Rio. Phelps has now beaten Lochte in the 200IM at four Olympic trials and three Olympics. Lochte has won titles at four world championships when Phelps did not contest the event. Lochte broke Phelps’ world record in 2011, and the mark of 1:54.00 still stands. “We’ve been going at it 13 years now, and the show isn’t over yet,” said Lochte, who said he was much healthier than earlier in the week when he strained his groin. “This is probably going to be the most exciting race in Rio ... Sometimes I think I wouldn’t be the swimmer I am today if it wasn’t for Michael.” Phelps echoed the thoughts. “Ryan and I always have a great race,” he said. “He and I have been racing since 2004 together, and when we race each other, we bring each other to a different level. We take each other to that next step.”
If there was an icy or indifferent disposition between the two at one point, the relationship has warmed over the last few years. The pair even joked with each other behind the blocks before Friday’s race began after Lochte inadvertently stepped on Phelps’s foot. “Ryan gave me a flat tire out there,” Phelps said. “I think it shows that we’re just enjoying ourselves. It’s nuts. We’ve been racing each other for 13 years and tonight was the last race you guys will see between us on American soil.” It was worth the wait.
Fast start pays off
Abbey Weitzeil knew it would pay to go out fast against such a deep 100-meter freestyle field. Unlike some races in Omaha, hers was exceptionally fast. Seven of the eight swimmers in Friday’s final were under U.S.-record pace at the turn. Emerging star Simone Manuel was right on her tail, and five other simmers in the field came in with Olympic experience. “It was crazy,” she said, “I knew I was going to have to put my head down and fight for it, because I knew everyone was going to be there with me.” Headliners Missy Franklin and Natalie Coughlin didn’t even qualify for the final. “Honestly, when I saw the ‘1’ next to my name it was a huge relief,” Weitzeil said. “I’ve raced these girls before. You just have to stay in your own lane and in your own head.”
Weitzeil, 19, owned the event throughout the week, posting the fastest time in the prelims, semis and finals. She deferred her start at Cal until after the Games to stick with longtime coach Coley Stickels, a decision that certainly paid off. “I feel my times have been consistent because my training has been really consistent,” she said. “I’m in a familiar place with Coley and staying was the right move.”
In no event is the changing of the guard more apparent than in the men’s backstroke. The 100- and 200-meter races have witnessed an abrupt turnover in just one Olympic cycle. It’s a big departure from the years when Aaron Peirsol defined the era in the event, winning five Olympic golds, including relays and 10 world titles from 2001 to 2009. Consider that in London, four years ago, four different U.S. swimmers took four different medals in the men’s backstroke races. In the 100, Matt Grevers and Nick Thoman went 1–2, and in the 200, Tyler Clary and Ryan Lochte went 1–3.
None of those four swimmers will swim backstroke in Rio. Friday night, Clary finished third in the men’s 200 back behind Ryan Murphy and Jacob Pebley, a pair of swimmers from Cal, which has been very well represented in Omaha. Lochte didn’t swim the race. On Tuesday, Grevers took third in 100 back behind Murphy and David Plummer. “It’s so competitive,” said Murphy. “I see Jacob fight every day. It’s great to get our places in the show.”
U.S. swimmers have weighed in this week on the outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil and other neighboring countries. It is only one of the side issues plaguing the run-up to the Rio Olympics. “We are aware of what the risks are,” says Franklin, “but we’ll take the lead from our staff. They’re in touch with the CDC [Center for Disease Control] and other people who are monitoring it. Of course we don’t want to put ourselves at unnecessary risk, but I don’t think we will.”
In late May, 100 doctors submitted a letter to Margaret Chan, the director general of the World Health Organization, urging her to advocate that the IOC move the Games for fear of visitors contracting the virus and then spreading it as they return to their home countries. The WHO later issued a statement saying that athletes should take precautions, but not fear the virus. Chan added that she, herself, would attend the Games. “Sure, we’re concerned,” said returning Olympian Nathan Adrian, “but there’s no way the virus is going to keep us from the Games.
Five weeks ago, U.S. Swimming moved its pre-Olympic training camp from Puerto Rico up to Atlanta. Frank Busch, the National Team Director, issued a statement at the time that said, “According to CDC, our athletes would be highly exposed to the Zika virus in Puerto Rico.”
A handful of athletes in other sports have said they would skip the Games because of Zika, but no U.S. swimmers have opted out yet. “When you think about what we’ve gone through to get there,” said Lochte, “we’ll take precautions and take our chances.”