OMAHA, Neb. -- Ryan Lochte had insisted for months that 2012 was "my time." On the opening night of the Olympic Swimming Trials at the CenturyLink Center, he made a convincing case by beating rival Michael Phelps in the 400-meter individual medley for the first time in the first of what will most likely be three head-to-head matchups here. Unlike their 400 IM showdown in this pool four years ago, when Phelps and Lochte both finished under the world record several body lengths ahead of the field, this time the record was safe and the race was for second.
Tyler Clary, who finished a distant fourth in 2008, had devoted the last four years to winning an Olympic berth in this event this year. His target was Lochte, who had become the two-time world champion after Phelps swore off the grueling event upon winning the gold in Beijing. Clary admitted Monday morning that he was surprised that Phelps had entered the event here, but he didn't expect it to change his plans. Phelps led through the butterfly leg, but halfway through the backstroke leg Clary surged to the lead, making the turn to breaststroke in first. But as Clary lost steam in the breaststroke, Lochte took over, widening his lead to a body length over Phelps at one point before cruising to the wall in a time of 4:07.07, .82 seconds ahead of Phelps and 2.86 seconds ahead of Clary, who declined to talk to the media afterward.
"The first race is always the hardest," said Lochte afterward. "I can take a deep breath now and relax and whatever happens, happens."
Phelps, the two-time Olympic champion and world record holder in the event, said afterward he was "pleased" with his result and credited the raucous crowd of 11,000 -- and the odd but festive bursts of flame that shot up from the pool deck after the breaststroke leg -- for "giving me a little bit extra energy in that last 150."
Clary may have been surprised to see him in the event, but Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, had been pondering a return for the last two years. Bowman had wanted Phelps to keep the 400 IM on his schedule because training for the distance medley prepares Phelps for all his other events and because "he is sort of built to do that event," says Bowman. "That's why I hate to take it away; it's his ideal event. That and the 200 fly are what he does. The other stuff is kind of superfluous."
At the Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine in 2010, Phelps was "in the worst shape of his life," says Bowman. Yet he swam an impressive 4:15.38 in a 400 IM preliminary heat. Though it wasn't fast enough to place him in the A final -- Lochte swam a 4:08.77 and Clary a 4:09.20, and each country can only have two athletes in the A final -- it was fast enough to plant an idea in his head.
"Honestly, Michael could not have been in worse shape," says Bowman. "I remember him getting out of the pool after that and saying, 'If I did any training at all in that I could go my times again.' That's when it started, when we both started thinking about it. I thought, 'My gosh, if you could do that now, if you did prepare, you could do a lot better.' The swims he has had this year have all been very good compared to what he has done in previous years, so that has proven out."
Phelps says the decision to go ahead with the event at trials came long before he tweeted a picture of his shaved face on Sunday, a big clue he'd be swimming on Monday. "I wanted to do it," he says. "Having a year and half off from it was good, but this is an event I've done for a long time, something I'm kind of happy to finish off my career with."
Whether he finishes it with his customary gold medal will be determined in London. For now the 400 IM still belongs to Lochte, who has put in a brutal year of training while juggling out-of-the-pool commitments and opportunities that have included commercials for Gillette and photo shoots for Glamour and Vogue. Though his in-season results were rarely impressive -- in one race he was so broken down and off-the-pace that his older sister, Megan Torrini, sent him a worried text that read, "God, Ryan, you looked horrible!" -- he never doubted he would be on the top of the podium in Omaha.
Asked how it felt to finally beat Phelps in the 400 IM, Lochte said, "Good, I guess. Whenever I go on the blocks, no matter who it is, I always feel like I can win. So I knew that I was capable of doing it."
Not everyone was as sure. After Lochte donned his new signature red, white and blue winged hightops, he stood on a podium to receive his medal. Then he found his mom, Ileana, in the crowd, draped his medal around her neck and gave her a hug. Sobbing with emotion she hugged him back and said, "Thank God you made it so we're not going to London by ourselves."