OMAHA, Neb.—Throughout Michael Phelps' amazing swimming career, only a handful of men have had the courage, the conditioning and the competitive moxie to race him in the 400-meter individual medley and match him stroke for stroke.
Ryan Lochte did that last night. He pushed Phelps to the limit, making the world's best swimmer summon something from deep inside himself, something we haven't seen in more than a year.
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Phelps broke his own world record in the 400 IM last night at the U.S. Olympic trials, going 4 minutes, 5.25 seconds, nearly a second faster than the mark he set at the 2007 FINA World Championships in Melbourne, Australia. And the Rodgers Forge native who turned 23 today needed every inch to hold off Lochte, who went 4:06.08. Lochte's time also broke Phelps' old mark, but it wasn't enough to win, thanks to an amazing finishing freestyle leg by Phelps in his first event of the trials.
Lochte, who took the lead briefly at the 250-meter mark, pushed Phelps harder than any swimmer has since he and Eric Vendt each went under world record time at the Fort Lauderdale Grand Prix in 2002. Phelps emerged the victor that day in a showdown that was later dubbed "The Perfect Race" by the swimming community. His battle with Lochte last night likely overtook that race as the new standard.
"Someone asked me, 'When is the last time two people went under the world record?' " Phelps said. "I remembered back to that race with [Vendt] thinking that was probably one of the greatest races of my life. Being able to do that tonight [was a thrill]. Having Ryan next to me really helped me go that fast."
For the past six months, the 400 IM has been the one event that, publicly and privately, annoyed Phelps. It never felt right, no matter what he did. He would try to swim fast and his legs would feel like cement. He would try to swim easy and his times would reflect it. At every meet this winter and spring, he would look up at the scoreboard in frustration.
"I don't know what was different tonight," Phelps said.
"I think the competition level was just different," Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, said. "Other races where we weren't happy, it was partly because nobody was really pushing him. Easy for someone like Michael, your best is at such high level, it's hard to generate that level of excitement just yourself."
If anyone was going to challenge Phelps' dominance in the 400 IM, it was Lochte, one of Phelps' closest friends on the national team. The 23-year-old Daytona Beach, Fla., native is a swimming savant who yearns for competition, but at the same time, he also embodies the classic laid-back skateboarder/surfer ethos that seems to insulate him from pressure.
Lochte doesn't seem bothered by nerves because, generally, he doesn't think too much about the gravity of the moment. Any moment, really. He just enjoys hanging out with his girlfriend, playing with his dog (whom he named after rapper Lil' Wayne), listening to hip-hop and swimming faster than just about anyone else on the planet.
What made Lochte's performance last night even more amazing is that just three weeks ago, he badly sprained his ankle chasing after his dog, an injury he says he still notices when he pushes off the starting blocks or the walls.
The two friends were even at 300 meters, and Phelps said he knew when he glanced over at Lochte that it was going to be "a dogfight" to the finish.
"Michael's last wall was really what won him the race," Bowman said. "I also thought he did a really good job of not over-swimming the butterfly. For him, that's one of the most important things, to just control the butterfly and not step on the gas."
Phelps won't be competing in the 100-meter backstroke but has six events remaining. Bowman and Phelps managed to share a laugh in the news conference an hour after the race when someone asked whether there was any risk to Phelps swimming in such an intense race on the first day when he still has a full schedule of events ahead of him.
"I think the only risk in having pushed that hard is to my heart," Bowman said.
Said Phelps, "All the hair on your head is going to turn gray."
Bowman responded: "No, it's already gray. I think you're going to make it all fall out."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.