It was the showdown that wasn’t. In the highly anticipated matchup between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, in which the two swimmers were expected to duel it out for gold, Lochte ran away with the race, and Phelps found himself in a very unfamiliar position – struggling to keep up.
For the first time since he was 15 years old and a rookie Olympian in Sydney, Phelps failed to earn any hardware for his efforts. Swimming in what to him was the unfamiliar lane 8, reserved for the slowest qualifier from the morning heats, Phelps was behind nearly the entire 400m of the individual medley. He continued to allow more and more water to build between not just between himself and Lochte, who clocked in at 4:05:18, but Thiago Pereira of Brazil and Kosuke Hagino of Japan, who earned the silver and bronze, respectively. By the sixth of the eight laps, Lochte had put nearly a body length lead between him and king of the pool in Beijing. Phelps finished more than four seconds behind, at 4:09:28.
The duel drew athletes from all over, including Korea—which saw its gold medal favorite in the men’s 400 m freestyle disqualified for a false start and then reinstated—to American Somoa and Hungary. Olympians from other sports – gymnast Nastia Liukin and figure skater Michelle Kwan – made it to the Aquatics center, too. In the athlete section, swimmers and coachers were on their feet for the last 100m, when it was clear that Phelps would not just miss the gold, but the medal stand altogether. Almost too stunned to cheer, they didn’t roar into life until the medal ceremony several minutes later, when they cheered in appreciation for Lochte, Pereira and Hagino. Just after the race, in the hall just outside the pool arena with US women’s head coach Teri McKeever, Lochte’s coach Gregg Troy looked a bit dazed himself. “We knew he would swim well because he trained well,” he said. “He swam his own race today.”
In the stands, swimmers and coaches started to assess what had just happened: Michael Phelps had not just lost a race but failed to earn a medal. “Ryan Lochte is the best,” said Peter Nagy, a Hungarian swim coach who had no other words for what had transpired.
Nagy said there were hints that Phelps’ former glory may be fading, when the world record holder barely qualified for the event that has been his signature. Phelps squeezed in for the last place with the slowest time of the morning heats; he was surprised by how fast the rest of the field was, even in a qualifier, where it’s better to push yourself only enough to make the event without tiring yourself out for the evening’s final. “I had a chance to put myself in a good spot and I didn’t do it,” he said after the race. “It’s frustrating starting off on a bad note like this. It’s pretty upsetting, but the biggest thing now is to try to get back and move forward. Hopefully we can finish a lot better than what we started.”
In the massage room after getting out of the pool, Lochte says Phelps approached and congratulated him. “He said, ‘We haven’t lost the 400 IM for USA in a long time, way to keep it going.’ He was definitely proud of me, but I know at the same time he was kind of upset, and that will definitely be more motivation for him the rest of the meet.”
To boost his chances in London, Lochte started to change things after Beijing. Coming in third behind Phelps in two races at the last Games spurred him to adjust his diet and his workouts. He gave up fast food and candy and picked up the Strongman strengthening program (flipping tires, throwing kegs and pulling heavy chains) after his trainer used it to prepare for a Strongman competition.
“For me,” Phelps said in a recent press conference, “I don’t see myself throwing a tire.” But it worked for Lochte. “It feels amazing to know that the last four years I put in that hard work and it finally paid off,” he says. “I definitely have pride because [Phelps] hasn’t lost the 400 IM at the past two Olympics. It definitely gives me a lot of confidence knowing that I can do this over and over again.”
And gaining that confidence itself couldn’t have been easy. Swimming in Phelps’ shadow, Lochte is constantly compared to him, and constantly reminded that as talented as he is in the pool, there is someone better. That should be enough to dampen even the most dedicated athlete, but for Lochte, it was inspiration rather than discouragement, a lesson he learned from his first swim coach, his mother Ike. “He is competitive, and he wants to be No. 1,” she says. “But if he’s swimming and someone beats him, he will come back and try something new, and keep adding to his workouts to get better and better. He doesn’t conform, and he always gives 100%” she said in the days before the race.
The way Lochte sees it, “[Phelps] knows how to win, but what you really have to learn is trying to find ways to beat him.”
So far, three people seem to have figured that out, and now have medals to prove it. But Phelps is notoriously faster when he’s motivated by defeat or smack talk, something Lochte will remember at their next face-off in five days in the 200 IM, a shorter version of the 400m event. That’s one in which Phelps is expected to have a slight edge, since Lochte will be swimming in the 200m backstroke final about half and hour before the 200 IM race. “Not pleased with my race tonight at all…But tom[orrow] is a new day! And a new race!!” Phelps tweeted a couple of hours after his swim. Lochte is aware of what he’s up against: “The next races he is in, he is going to light it up,” he said. Ryan, looks like you already did.