SHANGHAI -- Coming into these 2011 swimming world championships, Michael Phelps observed that he had lacked motivation but had found it again. His coach, Bob Bowman, declared, "We did a year's worth of training in nine months. How that worked, we're going to find out -- shortly." It's not quite enough.
Ryan Lochte beat Phelps in the 200-meter freestyle Tuesday night by about a half-second. Lochte is a major talent in his own right, and he deserved this victory, absolutely deserved it, because as he said at a news conference afterward, "All that hard work that I've done actually paid off."
There's a lot of racing left at these championships -- Lochte and Phelps, who are good friends, will square off again in the 200 individual medley -- and if Lochte ultimately emerges the big winner here, it means the mainstream press is going to have a big time over the next year, in the lead-up to the London 2012 Olympics, proclaiming the emergence of The Big New American Swim Star, while wondering if Phelps' star is diminishing, if not diminished.
Not so fast.
Again, Lochte is an incredible talent as well as a great personality. He showed up behind the blocks Tuesday night wearing his beloved shiny green high-top sneakers. Coming off the medals stand, he sported a diamond grille in his teeth. This year, he's favoring a new shorter haircut instead of the longer curly locks he used to sport.
Lochte likes to say, "Jeah!" which is his way of saying he likes something a lot. He's great with kids. He's genuinely funny and humble and USA Swimming loves to use him in a variety of its promotions.
He and Phelps are such pals that Phelps, who is notoriously anti-social in the ready room before races, actually will talk to Lochte there. Indeed, before this 200 free Phelps had his music up so loud -- it's always Lil Wayne or Young Jeezy -- that he and Lochte were singing aloud together to the music. Way before they got there, Lochte had posted to his Twitter feed, "Me and @MichaelPhelps gotta eat these swimmers like Anthony Hopkins tonite. Let's go #USA, #JEAH"
All of that.
Lochte won gold in the 200 backstroke in Beijing in 2008 and bronze, behind Phelps, in both the 200 and 400 IMs. They teamed up to help win gold in the 800 Beijing free relay.
Lochte is a way better athlete now than in 2008, a "completely different" swimmer, he said Tuesday, "a lot stronger" and "a lot smarter," a guy who eats better and trains like he wants to win.
This, though, is a constant: He is one of the very few swimmers who has no fear of racing Phelps. Never has. As he put it simply Tuesday night, "We both want to win."
For sure, Phelps' amazing career has been marked not just by his desire to win but by an almost pathological revulsion to losing.
As good as Lochte is, what's now at issue is that Phelps is back in the game, and for real. He said late Tuesday night, "I'm happy to be back in the water again," adding, "I probably haven't had that feeling since '08."
So here's the deal, and you can bet both swimmers and their camps know it:
Lochte is in great shape. Phelps is not.
Even so, over the final 50 meters, Phelps -- who has always been a great closer -- swam faster than Lochte. Phelps went 26.66. Lochte went 26.95.
Imagine if Phelps was in better shape and was able to get over on his turns, and kick out better on those turns -- points that Bowman noted afterward. These technical points may seem like swim geek stuff. They're not. They're power points that win races.
Imagine, too, if Phelps was in better shape and able to carry the race through all four laps the way he wanted. He had said beforehand that the guy who flipped first at the third turn was going to win. Phelps flipped first at the first and second turns but then the race got away from him; he was third at 150; Lochte flipped first at that third turn.
The final scoreboard: Lochte 1:44.44, Phelps 1:44.79.
For Phelps to be back down in the 44s, though -- as Bowman put it, "The year I've had -- thank you. We're very happy with that."
There's this, too:
The 200 free has been one of Phelps' signature races. When Australia's Ian Thorpe set the world record in the event at the 2001 worlds, 1:44.06, it was thought unapproachable -- until Phelps broke it six years later, at the 2007 worlds, going 1:43.86.
At the 2008 Games, Phelps then lowered the mark to 1:42.96.
At the 2009 worlds in Rome, amid the plastic-suit craziness, Germany's Paul Biedermann not only beat Phelps -- Phelps has called it a "beat-down" -- but took the record, lowering it to 1:42 flat.
That mark is totally suspect, though Phelps has never said so.
Phelps on Tuesday beat Biedermann, who finished third, in 1:44.88, almost three seconds back of that 2009 time. "Yeah, the suits helped," Biedermann said at a news conference after racing Tuesday.
Phelps, who later Tuesday night had to swim hard to qualify for the finals of the 200 fly, said, referring to the 200 free, "With the training that has happened over the last six to eight months, that's all I had in the tank. I would have loved to win. I think this is something that is going to help me, a lot, over the next year."
He also said, "I think I know where I can get and what it takes to get back there. I know I can go faster than that. I know for sure I can go faster than that. That's not even a question. Like I said, I am pleased with where that is now.
"But that time won't win a gold medal next year."
Which, after all, is the end game.