After his record-breaking medal haul in Beijing, Michael Phelps took a break.
But the monster he had created did not.
That monster was his opposition, around the world and in Gainesville, athletes who had observed how successful, influential and rich a swimmer could be if he won a lot of medals.
Ryan Lochte attempted to emulate Phelps at the London Games and make his own Olympic statement: “It’s my time.”
Not yet, but maybe after Phelps retires.
When it comes to managing a massive workload, Phelps proved he is still the master Thursday, when he beat Lochte to the wall in the 200 individual medley to win his first individual gold medal of the 2012 Olympics. Lochte was closing on the final, freestyle leg but he ran out of water. Phelps, 1:54.27; Lochte, 1:54.90.
The race ended the much-ballyhooed London Games showdown between the two Americans, who only raced head-to-head twice and finished 1-1, with Lochte’s convincing win in the 400 IM (Phelps was fourth) and Phelps’ touché in the 200.
After their first encounter on Saturday, Phelps seemed to get faster and Lochte slower. In the 400-freestyle relay, Phelps built a big lead and Lochte couldn’t hold it on the anchor leg.
The scorecard: Phelps has two golds, two silvers, one fourth, the 100 butterfly and medley relay to come on Friday and Saturday. Lochte has two golds, two silvers, a bronze, a fourth. Lochte is done; Phelps could win two more golds, which would his career tally to 22 medals, 18 gold.
Phelps raised the bar in swimming, and he raised it far higher than Mark Spitz had because swimming is more globally competitive than it was 40 years ago.
Now, to be the swimming star at its quadrennial showcase, you can’t be a specialist, like world-record breaking breaststroker Rebecca Soni. You’ve got to be a generalist. Lochte tried in five events, and his results were mixed. Missy Franklin, only 17, is trying with a seven-event menu.
What’s happened at the Aquatics Centre shows just how difficult Phelps’ Super Eight was in 2008. Everything — every start, every relay exchange, every glide or stroke to the wall, every prelim, every warm down — had to go perfectly.
Phelps did it again Thursday by winning the 200 IM 40 minutes after he won his 100 fly semifinal. Lochte’s schedule didn’t go as smoothly. He placed third in the 200 backstroke and 32 minutes later placed second to Phelps. Lochte was the world champion in both events.
Lochte shouldn’t feel like a failure. He stuck to an ambitious plan and takes home five medals.
“I definitely wanted five golds but I can’t be too disappointed,” he said. “It wasn’t fatigue and it wasn’t pressure because I’ve done the training and I kind of go with the flow when it comes to pressure. I think the excitement of the Olympics and being faster than I was in 2008 made me go out faster than I usually do. That hurt me because I’m not a sprinter.”
Lochte turns 28 Friday and said for the first time in years he won’t be swimming on his birthday. He deserves to relax after his rigorous program, a program which his coach, Florida coach Gregg Troy, defended and pointed out that the grueling 400 IM was the last event at 2011 world championships, where Lochte won five golds, and the first event here.
These multi-tasking programs get attention but are they a good trend for swimming? Lochte faced crazy expectations, of his own making. He and Phelps highlighted the problem that there are too many similar events in swimming. What if a track athlete competed in eight events?
Are swimmers going to feel compelled to parse their schedules for maximum podium chances?
“The most important thing is recovery,” Troy said. “It takes a whole lot of legs and we didn’t quite have the legs.”
But it was the last of the Lochte-Phelps rivalry. Two once-in-a-lifetime swimmers in the same pool lifted each other and their sport. Phelps might have taken a permanent break after Beijing if not for the challenge Lochte presented. Lochte might never have raised his goals and lowered his times without Phelps in the lane next to him.
Lochte learned it takes a certain fortitude not to let down over the course of a week of high scrutiny and intensity, hitting you like a series of jabs in the morning heats and again at night.
Phelps never lets his guard down. Even when he was on the medal podium Thursday he wasn’t celebrating. He rested against the back wall. He was thinking about his 100-butterfly on Friday.
“I was pretty much saying to Ryan, ‘This 100 is going to hurt,’” Phelps said. “I needed to lean on something before my legs gave out.”
Five down, two to go.