It ended in a way that rivalries typically never end. The two combatants sitting together, laughing, smiling and feeding off one another's jokes.
For months, we wondered what Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps were like when no one was watching, when they weren't on a pool deck doing everything imaginable to crush each other's professional aspirations. And finally, for a brief couple of seconds, they were letting us in.
For one of the two men, the night had not gone as planned. Lochte arrived at the London Aquatics Centre on Thursday night hoping to become the first man in more than 35 years to win two individual golds in one night. Instead, he went home with a bronze, a silver, and a dose of disappointment and relief.
For the other man, it was yet another jaw-dropping display of greatness. Phelps beat Lochte in the second of their two head-to-head showdowns and added yet another page to his obnoxiously long swimming résumé, becoming the first person to win gold in the same event in three straight Games by beating Lochte in the 200-meter individual medley.
By the time the competition was over and the adrenaline had stopped racing through their veins, Lochte and Phelps sat together on a podium in a tent outside the Olympic pool and enjoyed the moment.
As Lochte was talking about how weird it was going to be that he would never race against Phelps again, Phelps walked into the room. "Hey," Lochte said with a smile. "I was just talking about you."
The pair then spent the next five-plus minutes bragging about each other, with Lochte calling Phelps the greatest Olympian of all time and Phelps referring to Lochte as the toughest competitor he ever faced. Then, they shared a moment of being two guys who wanted nothing more than to escape a room filled wall-to-wall with reporters.
When the news conference moderator told the packed room that Lochte was very busy and needed to leave, Phelps rolled his eyes.
"He's done!" Phelps said with a laugh, referring to the fact that Lochte had no more events scheduled in London. "What are you talking about? I've got two more races. I've got to go."
Lochte sat back in his chair and smiled. He pumped his fist and tapped Phelps softly on the back as he climbed out of his chair.
"Have fun," he said with a wink. "I'm out of here."
He then quietly whispered to Phelps that he would text him later.
On Friday, Lochte will celebrate his 28th birthday with a newfound appreciation for what it means to be Phelps. In the four years since Beijing, he had done everything he could. He flipped tires. He pulled chains. He stopped eating McDonald's. Deep in his core, he believed it was going to be enough. He told everyone and anyone who would listen that this time was his time.
Sure, he respected Phelps and everything he had accomplished, but London was supposed to be the Lochte Games. There were T-shirts, sunglasses and workout videos to sell. He was on the cover of countless magazines. He put in the endless hours of grueling training to back up all the hype.
Only there was one problem: He wasn't Michael Phelps.
"Michael is the best," said Lochte's coach, Gregg Troy.
On Thursday night, Lochte was reminded of just that. After his third straight night of swimming two events, he and Troy admitted he was fatigued and it affected him in both of his races. In the 200 back, he faded in his last 50, turning a .10-second lead against Tyler Clary into a .53-second deficit and a bronze medal. Then, after warming down in the diving well as Missy Franklin had done three nights earlier, he came back 31 minutes later and never led in the 200 IM, trailing Phelps from the block. He end up finishing .63 seconds behind Phelps for silver.
"The program takes a whole lot of legs for him, and he's a leg-driven athlete," Troy said. "We just didn't have quite the legs we needed at the end of the race."
Said Phelps: "I may have been lucky that Ryan had a 200 back 30 minutes beforehand. He can probably swim faster than I went tonight. I'm sure you'll see him swim faster over the next four years, but I was lucky enough to get the gold medal."
According to USA Swimming, it was Lochte's 20th loss to Phelps out of 26 races together in the 200 IM but just his third loss to Phelps out of nine races since 2010. It ended Lochte's 2012 Olympics with five medals -- one of two golds coming against Phelps in the 400 IM, two silvers and a bronze, giving him 11 career Olympic medals, second only to (who else?) Phelps. But it was far below his personal expectations for 2012.
At the end of the night, Lochte described his performance as "slightly above average." Troy scoffed at such a suggestion.
"Not too many people walk out of here with five medals," Troy said. "It's way above average. But when you come with way-high expectations, sometimes you get them, sometimes you don't."
And it serves as yet another reminder of Phelps' incredible career. No one else save for the 17-year-old Franklin came to London with a schedule anywhere near as taxing as Phelps and Lochte.
And yet there are those who will look at Phelps' inability to reach the podium in the 400 IM or Lochte's failure to medal in the 200 freestyle as examples of disappointments for swimmers who had such high expectations. But when you set the bar impossibly high, it doesn't mean you're a disappointment if you fail to reach it.
"Anyone who doesn't realize what Michael did in Beijing isn't paying attention," Troy said. "It's never been done before and it's never going to be done again. Even this weekend, Michael has been fantastic ... and it's still not Beijing."
The final tally will say this head-to-head battle was essentially a tie. Phelps, who has already won four medals and is expected to win two more in the 100 butterfly and 4x100 medley relay, could go home with a potential 22 medals.
But when they were in the water at the same time in London, Phelps and Lochte each won a race. So at the end of the day, we can call this a draw, right?
Michael Phelps stood behind the podium and leaned against the wall at the end of the Aquatics Centre, a faraway look in his eyes. He was about to receive his 20th Olympic medal of his career after winning the 200-meter individual medley in smashing fashion.
Inquiring media minds wanted to know what he was thinking. Was he reviewing the arc of his incomparable career? Relishing his revenge upon friendly rival Ryan Lochte after losing to him in the 400 IM five days earlier? Contemplating the meaning of life?
Turns out the thought process was much more practical than ethereal. Here's what was on Michael Phelps' mind: "This 100 is going to hurt."
As soon as he got his gold medal, listened to the "Star-Spangled Banner," and completed his victory lap with fellow medalists Lochte (silver) and Laszlo Cseh (bronze), he had more work to do. He shucked off his team sweatsuit and hustled away for the 100 butterfly semifinals.
"I was in a lot of pain," Phelps said. "My legs were hurting bad."
Despite that, he smoked the 100 'fly with the fastest qualifying time for finals, only .28 seconds off his own Olympic record.
On a night when people were lining up to knock Lochte for winning a lousy five medals in London, Phelps's performance amid a major muscle rebellion underscored an inconvenient truth for those who prefer black and white to gray: It's wrong to declare either of these ambitious men disappointments in these Olympics.
Lochte's meet is over with five medals: two gold, two silver, one bronze. (And now, look out, London. The Games' most eligible bachelor is ready to unwind and will celebrate his 28th birthday on Friday. The British tabs are on high alert.) Phelps now has two golds and two silvers,
You want to knock either guy? Go ahead. It's ridiculous.
The medal hauls don't live up to what Phelps did in Beijing four years ago. Nor does it fulfill the wildest-dream-come-true list for either swimmer entering these Olympics. But at their advanced swimming ages (both 27) and with the world gaining on them, both were sufficiently fearless to embrace the challenge.
Failing to dominate every race is not a repudiation of either man. It is a reinforcement of their willingness to take on something absurdly difficult. To endure the endless preliminary and semifinal heats, the warm-ups and warm-downs, the ice baths, the massages, the lack of sleep – not to mention the concerted efforts by more rested competitors to take them down.
"Michael and Ryan are the only guys who have ever done that," said American men's head coach Gregg Troy, who also is Lochte's personal coach.
"The bar is set very high," said Bob Bowman, Phelps's coach.
And they're the ones who set it, by being so good at so many things for so long.
The vast majority of the swimming world is composed of specialists: a single stroke, or a penchant for distance or sprints. Very few swimmers are good enough to do a variety of strokes, and very few have the stamina to excel in multiple events against elite international competition.
A much smaller number still is both good enough to generalize, tough enough to go through the physical torment of six or more events in one Olympics, and special enough to hit the medals stand in all of them.
In American history, that number is three: Phelps, in both 2004 and '08; Matt Biondi in 1988; and Mark Spitz in 1972.
Now consider how many generalists have remained elite across three Olympiads. That number is two: Phelps and Lochte. They've both earned IM medals in 2004, '08 and '12.</b>
After Phelps and Spitz, it can easily be argued that Lochte is the third-greatest American swimmer of all-time – and he's not done yet. Lochte, who now has won 11 medals, the second-most for any American male, said Thursday that he intends to train 2016 and compete in Rio de Janeiro.
Just trying to do such a thing once can chew up and spit out a lesser swimmer. Four years ago, Katie Hoff was billed as the Female Phelps, swimming six events. She staggered to one silver and two bronze, and hasn't been the same swimmer since. This time around, 17-year-old Missy Franklin is attempting a women's-record seven events – and she's doing fine, with four medals won, but she's also missed the podium twice. (TBH 5/7 Olympic medals isn't bad, BB, we still like you.)
Phelps wound up counseling her in the warm-down pool on Thursday, after Franklin's second double of the meet ended with an exhausted fifth place in the 100 freestyle. Lochte endured his own double on Thursday, finishing a surprising third in the 200 backstroke and then being beaten by Phelps in the 200 IM.
"It takes a lot of time to understand how stressful it is on your body," Phelps said. "It is tough to get up and race the best in the world in every single event."
Often over the years, racing the best in the world meant racing each other for Phelps and Lochte. In fact, if it weren't for each other, they'd have even more impressive collections of hardware.
Phelps would have had a bronze in the 400 IM to start this meet if Lochte weren't here. Lochte would have two more golds in 200 IMs where he finished runner-up to Phelps.
Yet both said on Thursday night how much they valued competing against each other.
"He is the toughest racer I've ever had to deal with," Lochte said of Phelps.
"Ryan is one of the toughest competitors I've ever swam against," Phelps said of Lochte.
Their toughness is unquestioned. Their ambition should not be criticized. Neither Michael Phelps nor Ryan Lochte has had a perfect London Olympics, but they haven't shied away from the challenge of trying to beat the world – and each other – as many times as possible.
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