From the moment the Olympic swimming schedule was released, the men’s 200-meter individual medley final was on everybody’s 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. Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh took bronze. Phelps surprisingly made up time on the backstroke, Lochte’s 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 Japan’s Ryosuke Irie won silver. Clary pointed toward the sky in memory of his club coach, Kevin Perry, who died of prostate cancer in 2008.
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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 didn’t live up to the hype.
“Yes and no,” he responded. “I wanted to win gold in everything, but you know what? It didn’t 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. I’m going to miss racing him. It’s 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 I’m happy to be part of his team. It’s 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 can’t 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 I’ve 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.”
Phelps and Lochte had taken turns winning the 200 IM in recent years. Phelps won gold at the Athens and Beijing Olympics. Lochte won silver and bronze at those Games, but turned around and beat Phelps for gold in world-record time (1:54.00) at the 2011 world championships. At the U.S. Olympic trials, Phelps edged his rival by .09 seconds.
Lochte had the better time in the semifinals Wednesday night, but Phelps won when it mattered.
It has been quite a week for Phelps, who got a call from President Obama after becoming the most decorated Olympian of all time with his 19th medal Tuesday. He admitted he has gotten a bit nostalgic during this meet.
“Going into every ready room, I say, ‘This is my last semifinal, my last prelim, my last semi 100 fly.’ So, we’re just chalking up all the lasts,” Phelps said. “I think it’ll really kick in before the relay [Saturday], my last event.
“It did hit me a little watching my mom and sister up there in the stands.”
Phelps and Lochte each had an up-and-down week.
Lochte beat Phelps by more than seven seconds in their opening-night 400 IM race. Lochte then got caught swimming the anchor leg of the 400 relay. He finished in fourth place in the 200 freestyle final.
Phelps finished second in the 200 butterfly for the first time at a major international meet in 12 years.
“I fell short the first couple of events, so it felt really cool to win an individual gold and to three-peat in the event,” Phelps said.
As for Lochte, he planned to eat at McDonald’s in the athletes village Thursday night. He said he ate McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Beijing Olympics, but then changed his diet to better compete against Phelps. On Thursday night, for one night, he was reverting to his previous diet.
Overshadowed by the Phelps-Lochte duel were two record performances — Clary’s Olympic-record win the 200 backstroke and Rebecca Soni’s world-record victory in the 200 breaststroke. She won in 2:19.59, improving on the world record she set in the semifinal Wednesday.
“I’ve been chasing this record since I was a little girl,” she said.