But therein lies a current crack in his title of ownership: That glide to the wall, rather than a full stroke that would have given him a faster finish time, had his coach steaming over what by Phelpsian standards was a flawed victory.
"That was a terrible finish," Bob Bowman said. "He needed another full stroke. He can do better than that.
"I can't stand those finishes. He's got to start making that important," he said. "We're at a point now where the details are important. We can't just keep blowing them off till later. It is later."
With the London Olympics, his fourth and last, approaching in four months, Phelps basically agreed. He said he was more upset by winning the butterfly event than losing his earlier race, the 100-meter freestyle.
"I think the biggest thing it shows is how much the little things matter," he said.
"I know that more than anybody … that a hundreth of a second can mean a difference," Phelps added, referring to his sliver of a victory in the Beijing Olympics, again in the 100-meter fly. "I gotta fix some of the really small things."
Phelps finished second in that to Nathan Adrian, 23, who survived a swimming trunks malfunction: They split on take-off.
"No!" Adrian, a Berkeley graduate, said when asked if that had ever happened to him before. "Not even in practice."
But for those hoping for an early match-up on this first day of competition, it was not to be. Lochte failed to swim fast enough in Thursday morning's preliminary heats and ended up in the consolation rounds for the 100-meter freestyle and butterfly races. They still could meet in Friday's 200-meter butterfly finals.
The rivalry features a pair of friends who are a study in contrasts — the blue-eyed, more laid-back Lochte against the darker, traditionally more intense Phelps. Lochte got the better of Phelps in last year's world championships in Shanghai, winning five gold medals to the Baltimore swimmer's four, beating him twice.
Still, Phelps is Phelps, and he 's been on the comeback trail since acknowledging that he lost his fire for competition after his dazzling performance in the 2008 Olympics. As recently as this week, he was calling his results "horrendous" and "terrible," and saying that it's harder to recover from hard training as a 26-year-old than as a kid.
In his last meet, though, the Grand Prix held in Columbus, Ohio, earlier this month, Phelps pulled off victories in all three races he entered, including the second-best time in the world this year in the 100-meter freestyle at 48.49 seconds.
Phelps said Thursday that he's "a lot closer to where I want to be than where I was the last three years." Getting frustrated by races such as Thursday's butterfly race tells him that his passion for the sport is back, he said.
He has found a new way to vent, as well as savor, the ups and downs of his swimming career — by keeping a journal. He's referred to it a couple of times this week, first telling an audience of kids at a Boys & Girls Club event on Wednesday about how he used to hate to write but now wants to make sure he forgets nothing about this final year as a competitive swimmer.
On Thursday, he said he's found his "little black book" helpful as a vessel for the good, the bad, the positive and the negative of his final quest for gold.
"I used to hold everything in," he said.
Phelps' North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate Allison Schmitt won the 400-meter freestyle race with a time of 4:06:94, beating former NABC swimmer Katie Hoff and her current teammate, Gillian Ryan.
But Schmitt fell short in her 100-meter freestyle race, coming in third. The winner, Dana Vollmer swam a fast 54.21, beating the meet record she set last year of 54.36. The 16-year-old phenom from Colorado Springs, Missy Franklin, came in second.
Vollmer, who credits Baltimore Olympic swimmer Anita Nall with helping her re-vamp her diet after discovering she had gluten and egg allergies, had a good night, also winning the 100-meter butterfly.