By Tim Layden
July 30, 2012

LONDON -- Olympic swimming is equal parts athletic competition and serial reality television, where the same elite contestants appear night after night on the same stage contesting slightly different events and awaiting judgment rendered first by the bloodless yellow digits on the giant scoreboard at the London Aquatics Center, which are later interpreted by the media, the public and the vast unwashed universe of social media. It is a world in which I'm just going to put this behind me and look ahead to my next race is an acceptable reaction to any performance, because there is always a next race. It's all very unusual in the one-chance-every-four-years world of the Olympics, yet manifestly genuine in the pool.

Take Ryan Lochte. On Saturday night, he commenced the Olympic Games swimming competition with a dominating victory in the grueling 400-meter individual medley, swimming the second-fastest time ever (fastest in the post-high-tech suit era) and winning by the largest margin in Olympic history. Far in his wake (both in the pool and in the zeitgeist) was Michael Phelps, he of the eight gold medals four years earlier in Beijing and the 17 Olympic medals overall. The Lochte Train beckoned Swimnation to climb on board for a golden run through London, leading to more shirtless magazine covers and stories about figurative torch passing. People [yup, I'm guilty, right here] speculated on how to interpret Phelps' performance [even Phelps called it "crappy'']. Phelps played the looking-ahead-to-tomorrow card. Lochte basked in his apparent ascension. There was a sense of careers possibly passing while traveling in opposite directions.

Twenty-four hours later, it was Phelps who bounced back to swim a brilliant leg (47.15 seconds, the second-fastest of any swimmer among 32 in the final) for Team USA in the 4x100-meter relay and Lochte who swam a just-respectable 47.74 but had the great misfortune to race the anchor against 20-year-old Frenchman Yannick Agnel, who swam a torrid 46.74 and beat Lochte by a full second to give France the gold medal. Phelps was justifiably pleased after the race and Lochte justifiably less pleased. [There was a supporting player in Sunday night's drama, U.S. swimmer Matt Grevers, who swam a fast leg in the morning prelims, but was dropped from the team that swam in the final, most likely in favor of Lochte. Remember Grevers's name].

On Monday night, Lochte mounted starting blocks for his third final in three days, this time the 200-meter freestyle, which promised to be one of the toughest races in the Games. "First to eighth, like a second difference,'' Lochte would say later Monday night, when the race was over. Lochte was the reigning world champion, but there was also world record holder Paul Biedermann of Germany, Sun Yang of China, Park Tae-hwan of Korea and, menacingly, the 6-foot-7½ Agnel. Phelps had won the race at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, but opted out of the event for the Games, to better manage his schedule in his Olympic dotage.

But en route to the Aquatics Center on Monday night, Phelps, who would swim (and reach the final) in the semifinals of the 200-meter butterfly, says he told a companion, "One-forty-three is going to win that race.'' The best time in the world in 2012 had been Agnel's 1:44.42 in March; no swimmer had ever broken 1:44 without a high-tech suit (Biedermann's world record, set in 2009, is 1:42 flat). Phelps later added: "I thought it would be 1:43-high.'' [Meaning just under 1:44].

Phelps says he counseled Lochte before the race. "I said to Ryan yesterday, for him to make a big dent in that race, he had to use underwaters. A lot of those guys don't have great underwaters and I said to him if he pushed off every wall, he's going to be a lot better off.'' In relating this advice to media, Phelps' tone was clear: Lochte would need a superior effort to win, or perhaps even to medal.

Agnel dominated the race, leading at every wall and finishing in 1:43.14, by far the fastest time in a textile [non-high-tech suit]. Lochte, known for his strong closing laps, went out relatively hard, turning at 50 meters in a close third place [24.72 seconds, .19 behind Agnel] and 100 meters also in third [51.19, a fading .55 behind Agnel]. At the third wall, Lochte had moved into second, .63 behind Agnel, but faded badly in the final 50 and finished fourth behind Agnel, Park and Sun, beaten by 1.90 seconds. "I guess I took it out a little too fast,'' said Lochte afterward. "I knew if I wanted to be in the race, I had to go out a little.''

He was less diplomatic on Twitter an hour later. Lochte tweeted to his nearly 437,000 followers: "Not so happy about that swim tonight. You live and learn. Tomorrow I will be better.'' Yet Lochte swam a very solid 1:45.04, .71 faster than his second-place time at the Olympic Trials. "He went one-forty-five-oh,'' said Tyler Clary of the U.S., who qualified behind Phelps in the 200 fly Monday night. "One-forty-five is a pretty frickin' fast time. It just happens there were three guys faster here.'' However Lochte's time was .60 slower than his winning time at the worlds last summer in Shanghai. Had he matched that time, he would have won a silver medal.

The pressure builds on Lochte now, ever so steadily. His next final will be in the 4x200 free relay on Tuesday night, and his last two events come on Thursday night, when he will swim the 200-meter backstroke [in which he is favorite] and the 200-meter individual medley [in which he will battle with Phelps]. It's not fair to say he's failed here. In some ways, he's unfortunate to have run up against the rapidly improving Agnel. Sometimes the other guy is just better. [In this way, all U.S. track sprinters of a certain age are unfortunate to have come along in the Usain Bolt era, or the Yohan Blake era].

Not long after Lochte's fourth-place finish, Grevers won the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke, swimming an Olympic record of 52.16, just off the 52.08 he swam to win the trials last month. Teammate Nick Thoman took the silver, .76 behind Grevers. "I feel incredible,'' said Grevers after the race, which came just one night after his exclusion from the 4x100 free relay. In all likelihood, Grevers would not have made the difference; France and Agnel were too good. But even Grevers said even before that race, "If someone is next to you, you just never know.''

Phelps qualified for Tuesday night's 200-meter butterfly final, in which he can match former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina's record of 18 career medals [Phelps already has a record 14 golds]. His fitness level seems clearly better suited to shorter races than the 400IM, but he's cut everything too close to presume he will win a gold medal on Tuesday night. Yet he might. In the semifinals, he was careful not to qualify with a slow time that might have left him in a poor lane, which had happened in the 400IM. "I actually did something I usually shouldn't do in butterfly,'' said Phelps. "I tried to see my 100 split [on the scoreboard]. I wanted to swim a controlled race and be comfortable. I just wanted to set myself up not in lane eight, not on the outside.''

Phelps laughed when he said that, already making light of what was "crappy'' and disappointing 48 hours earlier. Phelps will threaten Lochte in the 200IM and probably be deep in the medal mix in the always-wild 100 fly. In the broader view, with each of Lochte's struggles in 2012, the Phelps of 2008 looks more remarkable. And with each passing day in 2012, Phelps looks more likely to again be the swimming star of the Games. But of course, that could change. Because this is the Olympic pool.

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