SHANGHAI -- Another night, two more finals, two more gold medals for Ryan Lochte here at the 2011 swim world championships. He won the 200 backstroke. Japan's Ryoskue Irie took second and American Tyler Clary third.
Then Lochte anchored the Americans to victory in the 800-meter freestyle relay. The French were more than two seconds back, the Chinese exactly three ticks behind.
Lochte's medal count at the 2011 worlds now stands at four golds and one bronze. He has won the 200 individual medley, and in world-record time; the 200 freestyle; the 200 back; and the 800 relay; he took bronze in the 400 free relay, after swimming in the prelims, and swim fantasy leagues -- if there are such things -- can debate why Lochte didn't swim the final.
He presumably has two events left: the 400 IM and the medley relay.
It's abundantly obvious that Lochte is, this year, America's best swimmer.
As well as, overall, the best swimmer in the world.
Again -- this year.
It's all going to get very, very interesting for Mr. Lochte over the next 12 months, between now and the London 2012 Olympics.
The demands on his time and his person are going to be -- well, Phelps-like.
If he didn't know that already, a clue came at a news conference Friday night, after the relay, when a reporter all but shouted, "Ryan, have you ever felt more confident and are you now the U.S.'s main man?"
There's sometimes such little politeness at these events. Michael Phelps was sitting immediately to Lochte's left.
Lochte deflected the question.
"I have a lot of confidence," Lochte said, adding a moment later, "I am just taking each race at a time, each swim at a time and each year a time … I am just going to get ready for 2012."
Phelps, for his part, is hardly having a poor meet. He won the 200 fly. He swam the lead-off leg in the 800 free relay -- by anyone else's standards it would have been great but by his it was only a so-so 200 split -- so he won gold in that, too. He took silver in the 200 free, behind Lochte; and silver in the 200 IM, again behind Lochte. Phelps also has bronze in that 400 free relay.
Phelps qualified in first position Friday for the finals of the 100 fly. He would seem to have that and the medley relay yet to go. His primary challenger in the 100 fly in 2008 and 2009, Serbia's Michael Cavic, troubled by back problems this year, did not make it through the rounds.
Phelps has said repeatedly here that he needs to get himself back into his best shape. He's not in that kind of shape in 2011.
He said Friday night, "I obviously would have liked to have swum faster in the  relay but I've said this every night so far -- hopefully with more training, I can swim faster."
Make no mistake. Phelps hates to lose. But he has been more than gracious in recognizing Lochte.
"I don't think there's anybody else we want at the back end of the relay than having Ryan there," Phelps said, adding a moment later, "We all set it up and he finished it for us."
There's no tension between the two of them.
But there's bound to be all sorts of stuff floating around, and everything everyone says will be dissected and parsed for meaning, whether it has any or not. This is what is bound to be part of the package for the next year as well.
Clary, coming off the pool deck after the backstroke, before the relay, was asked about Lochte.
Clary spoke at some length. He said, "The whole thing about swimming is that the times speak for themselves. And the fact that in just about every one of his races, he is winning pretty much hands-down does all the speaking that needs to be done.
"He has worked his butt off for years to get here. And you know like I said the other day I am really proud of him. There's -- I'm personally a big advocate of people that have that blue-collar work ethic and I know the way Gregg Troy coaches, I know the kind of physical tear-down they go through the year. It's really neat to see -- someone who kind of is idealized by my thoughts of what a world champion should look like actually starting to succeed. It's really cool."
What about Ryan versus Michael?
"People like controversy," Clary said. "People like to see the greatest Olympic champion of all time possibly, you know, get beat by somebody. People love seeing that. Personally, I'm not interested in it too much. I understand Michael's pretty much the face of swimming right now. But when people ask, you know, what does it feel like to be compared to Michael Phelps, or what's it feel like to be asked -- are you the next Michael Phelps? I'm not the next Michael Phelps. I'm the next Tyler Clary. Ryan feels the exact same way. He's his own person. Michael's his own person."
The next question: is there a changing of the guard? Again, this question came before the relay -- so at this point Lochte had "only" three golds at the 2011 worlds.
"Well, I think if you go by medals alone, I would say, yes, I think Michael's got one gold medal; Ryan's got three golds already. It's a definite changing of the guard. Some people might say, you know, Michael's not exactly on his game. But all that matters on a race is who came most prepared on that day and lately it's looking like Ryan."
Final question -- looking out at 2012, do you discount Phelps' chances?
"Michael's the type of person who has proven he can pull it out of a hat when he needs to. I think anybody who discounts Michael in any way going into next year is going to be not only made a fool but is going to be kicking themselves afterwards. Michael is amazing in that sense."