SHANGHAI -- It was 7:32 a.m. on Tuesday in Gainesville, Fla., and Matt Delancey, a Florida strength coach who was at work in the basement of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, hadn't yet heard the news. He got it by text from Shanghai: Ryan Lochte, the swimmer Delancey calls "one of the three toughest athletes I've ever coached," had just won the 200-meter freestyle, an event he rarely contests, at the World Championships, beating a star-studded field that included defending world champion Paul Biedermann of Germany and 2008 Olympic champion Michael Phelps.
A swimmer whose background is more distance than sprinting, Lochte won the race the only way he could: by sticking with the faster-starting Phelps for the first 100 meters and powering through the final 100 meters. Coming into the second turn in third place behind Phelps and Russian Nikita Lobintsev, Lochte exploded off the wall to pull into the lead for good before touching in 1:44.44, .35 seconds ahead of Phelps and .44 ahead of bronze medalist Biedermann. Lochte's turn and the underwater kick coming off it was a display of power that can be attributed, at least in part, to the work he does with Delancey.
"He's a racer," Delancey said in a text message. "He's not afraid to be patient. Plus he trains really hard!"
Unlike Phelps, whose struggles to regain his form, fitness and motivation in the years since Beijing have been well-documented, Lochte never took substantial time off after the 2008 Olympics, where he won gold medals in the 200 backstroke and 4x200 free relay and bronzes in the 200 and 400 individual medleys. In fact, he says he can't remember ever taking more than two weeks off from some kind of training. Since Beijing he has been steadfastly focused. He has ditched the fast-food diet that once fueled him, and the 26-year-old has added a fourth day of strength training, often in Delancey's garage, where he does a Strongman routine that includes flipping tractor tires and heaving beer kegs.
"I'm definitely a completely different swimmer than I was in 2008," Lochte said. "I'm a lot stronger, a lot smarter. I've done a lot different in my training program."
In fact, he can't think of much more he could do to prepare himself for racing. "I've done all the training I can," he said.
That's what makes Tuesday's result, Lochte's first win over Phelps in the World Championships or Olympics, particularly interesting. Some were quick to anoint Lochte, the winner of six golds at last summer's Pan Pacs, as the new top dog in the sport. It was an impressive performance, particularly for a swimmer who is better known for his backstroke and medley success. Yet Lochte is in the best shape of his life while Phelps isn't. It's telling that there wasn't much celebrating in the Lochte camp -- "It's a big confidence boost," was Lochte's most effusive remark afterward -- or much fretting in the Phelps camp.
Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, both considered the result a positive sign that Phelps is finally winning the battle to regain his fitness and form.
"I can't complain," Phelps said. "I'm bummed I didn't win, but at the same time, with what we've done over the last six to eight months, I'm over a second faster than I was last year, and a second and a half off my best time in a [textile] suit. So I'm headed in the right direction."
That was obvious to Lochte's coach, Gregg Troy.
"It was a good field, and the win is a big deal," he said, "but Michael was right there, just a touch away."
A better test of who is the world's top swimmer may come in the 200 IM on Thursday. It's an event in which both Lochte and Phelps have had a lot of success: Lochte has the current world record, having wrested it from Phelps at the 2009 Worlds in Rome, and he bested Phelps in the event at last summer's Pan Pacs, the last time they raced each other head-to-head in a major competition. Phelps won the 200 IM in both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics in the midst of a 9½-year 200 IM winning streak.
Though he still has three individual events -- the 200 back and the 400 IM as well as the 200 IM -- to contest, one hopes Lochte will indulge in a least a little celebratory fist pump for this win. It might not come Tuesday, however. Asked how he was feeling an hour after his historic win, all he could say was, "Tired."