OMAHA — Ryan Lochte defeated Michael Phelps Monday night at the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 400-meter individual medley. Afterward, Lochte hugged his mom and then posed with red, white and blue shoes with wings on them and eased into his role of All-American great guy.
This marked the first time, ever, that Lochte had defeated Phelps in the 400 IM, and in the press room occasioned a predictable and immediate rush to judgment. The media loves horse races, and has put Lochte on the cover of magazines and featured him in television profiles and has all but anointed him The Man This Summer in London in the pool.
AP: “Ryan Lochte still has Michael Phelps’ number,” a reference to last summer’s world championships in Shanghai, when Lochte was indisputably the better swimmer.
Reuters: “Ryan Lochte reaffirmed his status as the world’s best all round swimmer when he beat Michael Phelps at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials …”
Lochte finished in 4:07.06, Phelps in 4:07.89. For sure, Lochte won, and decisively, pulling away in the third leg, the breaststroke, and swimming a strong fourth leg, the freestyle, for the victory.
Maybe Lochte will win again in London.
Then again, perhaps Phelps will.
Because what happened here Monday night has no bearing on what will happen in London.
Lochte knows it.
Phelps knows it.
Everyone really inside the swim community knows it, too.
The only thing at stake here Monday night was making the U.S. Olympic team. That’s it. Nothing more ought to be read into it.
Coming in, there seemed to be question in some quarters about whether Phelps would swim this event. He had publicly said many times that he might not.
The 400 IM is a particularly demanding swim. At the Olympics, it comes first — as opposed to the world championships, when it comes last — on the program.
The thing about Phelps not swimming it, however, is that Lochte is swimming it. And Phelps loves competition and challenge. So the smart money was always on him being in.
Here in Omaha, Phelps has just come off six weeks of altitude training in Colorado Springs. It needs to be understood that he is in shape — unlike many of the years between Beijing and now — but not refined shape.
Swimmers go through what’s called a “taper,” meaning a chance to let the blocks of endurance training they’ve done build in their bodies so that they can peak at a certain meet.
This year, that meet is, of course, the Olympics.
Not the Trials.
Phelps has always done his swims with the aim of reaching a particular time. He said afterward, “I said if I went 4:07, I’d be happy.”
Phelps has five more weeks to get faster. He said — though he finished second — he was “very pleased.”
Again, the point is to make the team. It’s OK — more than OK this time around for Phelps — for the hottest glare of the spotlight to be on Lochte.
Lochte, meanwhile, has five more weeks to get faster, too. He said, “That time was not good at all. I feel like I’m capable of going way faster,” adding a moment later, “Hopefully, that will change in a month.”
At a news conference after Monday’s racing was concluded, Lochte was asked what defeating Phelps for the first time in the 400 IM meant. His answer was revealing, because he understands full well what’s going on.
“I mean,” he said, “it doesn’t really say much.”