OMAHA — It was Michael Phelps’ 27th birthday Saturday, and then he went out and gave himself a big present, a victory in the 200-meter individual medley over Ryan Lochte in as thrilling and big-time a swim race as you could ever want to see.
With fans waving red, white and blue signs wishing Michael a happy birthday, Phelps led wire-to-wire in winning in 1:54.84. Lochte touched just nine-hundredths of a second behind, 1:54.93.
“A win is a win,” Phelps said, moments afterward, still breathing hard, adding, “It feels good to be back on that side.
“I’m sure that’s not going to be the end of us going back-and-forth. So I’m just happy to have a good race like that. Kind of pulled it all together.”
The victory reversed the order of last year’s 1-2 at the world championships in Shanghai, when Lochte not only won but set a world record in the 200 IM, 1:54 flat. It sets the stage for London and the Olympics just weeks from now.
Moreover, the race came amid a fascinating day of maneuvering by Lochte, who opted Saturday night not only to swim the 200 IM but to sandwich that swim between the final of the 200 backstroke and the semifinal of 100 butterfly, all within about an hour.
Phelps did not swim the 200 back. But he has for years been the boss of the 100 fly, and Lochte traditionally does not swim that event at major events, making it all the more intriguing that he would want to test himself in it.
Phelps is the 2004 and 2008 Olympic 200 IM champion. But in recent years Lochte has been the king of the 200 medley. He won it at the 2009 Rome and 2011 Shanghai worlds.
Phelps showed up in Shanghai in so-so shape. Lochte not only beat Phelps in the 200 IM but in the 200 free. Phelps freely acknowledged afterward that if he wanted to win, he needed to put in the work.
This past March, Lochte had told ESPN The Magazine, “Once I was able to beat Michael, it gave me a motivation, an edge. I told myself, I can do this. Once I beat someone, they won’t beat me again.”
Here, these Trials kicked off with Lochte defeating Phelps in the 400 IM. That was Lochte’s first-ever victory over Phelps.
Then, though, Phelps beat Lochte in the 200 free.
The mental what-do-you-have-for-me-now took an intriguing turn Saturday morning when “Ryan Lochte” turned up for real on the heat sheets of the 100 fly and, indeed, Ryan Lochte swam in the prelims.
Phelps, to no one’s surprise, was the fastest qualifier, in 51.8. Lochte was sixth, in 52.21.
The 100 fly is a staple on the Phelps program. Phelps is the gold medalist in the 100 fly in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics and the 2007 Melbourne, 2009 and 2011 world championships.
The 100 fly is typically not Lochte’s event. Yet all of a sudden he was swimming it? Because — why? The schedule was, in a word, compressed.
At 7:15 p.m Friday, Lochte swam in the 200 back finals. He touched first, in 1:54.54, with Tyler Clary second, 26-hundredths behind.
Lochte got out of the water, waved to the crowd and walked right off the pool deck.
At 7:45, 28 minutes later, he was back up top, for the 200 IM.
Phelps went out hard from the start, saying, “I had to.”
He added, “I kind of used Ryan having the 200 back before to set the pace early. You know, I know the 200 back … is a very tough race. And I know it takes a lot out of your legs. I wanted to jump on it in the first 100 and see what happened.
“But I think our backstroke we kind of let off it a little bit and we were playing a cat-and-mouse game again. And then of course the last 50 we just went crazy.”
The 200 IM ended at 7:47.
At 8, they held the 200 back medal ceremony.
At 8:12, Lochte was back on the blocks for his semifinal heat in the 100 fly. He finished third, in 52.47, enough for a spot in Sunday’s final.
Phelps, in the other semifinal, finished first, in 51.35.
“Tonight,” Lochte said, “was probably the most pain I have ever endured in a swimming competition.
“Going back-to-back-to-back was definitely hard. You know, I was up for the challenge. It is something I have been training for — for the last four years. I knew I was able to do it. The 100 fly was just a different event, an event I have never done before.”
And, he said, “Yes, I am swimming it [Sunday],” in the final.
With all these numbers, here’s one more bit of math, and perhaps the explanation behind Lochte’s Saturday’s triple. For reasons yet unexplained, he scratched out of the 100 back at the Trials. That leaves the 100 fly if he wants to medal in five individual events at the Games — the 100 fly plus both medleys, the 200 back and the 200 free. Throw in three relays — that’s a big if, by the way, that he would necessarily swim in all three — and you get eight.
Eight is precisely how many events Phelps swam in Beijing, winning eight gold medals.
Eight is also precisely the number of events Phelps is now on course to swim in London — assuming, of course, he finishes first or second in the 100 fly Sunday night.
“I actually never thought I would ever try it again,” Phelps said late Saturday.
He also said, when asked about a “rivalry” with Lochte, “You guys are going to get the same answer you always get. Sorry. Neither of us wants to lose. When we get in the water, we race as hard as we can.”
Phelps said he is concentrating now on “smaller things,” slamming his feet over faster on his backstroke-to-breaststroke turn in the medley, keeping his hands together during his breaststroke legs, things like that.
His longtime coach, Bob Bowman, said a couple days ago, “He is finishing everything well but he’s not particularly sharp. I like that,” because there are still weeks to go before London, time to hone that sharpness.
Assuming Phelps wins the 100 fly final, Phelps and Lochte will leave Omaha knowing that Phelps won three of four head-to-head here.
At the same time, they both know as well that what happened at the Trials, when they write the history books, will mean — well, very little.
With age comes wisdom, right? Michael Phelps, 27, said, looking ahead toward London, “The next race is the one that counts.”