LONDON -- From the moment the Olympic swimming schedule was released, the mens 200-meter individual medley final was on everybodys must-see list, not just Americans, any sports fan who recognizes a tantalizing rivalry: Michael Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte, defending Olympic champion vs. reigning world champion, head-to-head for the last time because Phelps is retiring.
Fans wrapped in star-spangled banners poured into the Olympic Aquatic Center to see the final showdown, which had been hyped on NBC and in worldwide newspapers. Lochte pronounced before these Games this was my time, but it was Phelps who was smiling the most Thursday after setting yet another record. Lochte, anointed King of the Pool after winning gold the first night in London, was left to answer questions about whether he lived up to his billing.
Phelps led wire-to-wire and touched in 1 minute 54.27 seconds to edge Lochte for the gold by 0.63 seconds. Hungarys Laszlo Cseh took bronze. Phelps surprisingly made up time on the backstroke, Lochtes specialty. Phelps first individual gold of these Olympics was the fourth medal overall here with two events to go and 20th overall of his career. No athlete in any sport has won more. He also became the first male swimmer to win the same event in three consecutive Olympics.
Lochte settled for silver, just 31 minutes after finishing a disappointing third in his favorite event, the 200-meter backstroke. American teammate Tyler Clary took the gold and Japans Ryosuke Irie won silver. Clary pointed toward the sky in memory of his club coach, Kevin Perry, who died of prostate cancer in 2008.
Lochte will celebrate his 28th birthday Friday and head home next week with five Olympic medals golds in the 400 IM and 800 relay, silvers in the 200 IM and 400 relay, and a bronze in the 200 backstroke. That brings his Olympic total to 11 medals. Only Phelps has won more medals among American men.
Despite the achievement, Lochte was asked in the postrace news conference if it was fair that some Americans will believe his performance here didnt live up to the hype.
Yes and no, he responded. I wanted to win gold in everything, but you know what? It didnt happen. I have to move on and learn from it. I am definitely training another four years for [Rio de Janeiro].
The rivalry we created was tremendous for the sport, and the friendship we created is awesome. Im going to miss racing him. Its going to be really weird not having him around. Michael Phelps will go down in history as one of the greatest swimmers of all time, and Im happy to be part of his team. Its something I will cherish the rest of my life.
Earlier, when he spoke to reporters as he walked off the pool deck, the former Florida Gators star conceded that the excitement of being in the Olympics caused him to go out faster than usual. But overall, I cant be too disappointed because I am taking five medals back home for my country.
Phelps said that he and Lochte joked around in the ready room that it was their last 200 together.
Ryan is definitely one of the toughest competitors Ive ever raced against, and Ryan and I have had a lot of great races dating to 2004, Phelps said. He has brought out the best in me.