Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte raced one last time for supremacy in the 200-meter individual medley, but one of the best rivalries in sports went out not with a bang but a gurgle.
Phelps logged another stellar night at the Olympic Aquatic Stadium, winning his fourth gold medal of the Rio Games by taking command on the breaststroke leg to finish in 1:54.66. He waggled four fingers as he leaned on the lane line and caught his breath.
For Lochte, showdown turned into anticlimax as he faded from first place to third to fifth in the last 100 meters. After his Olympic Trials performance was diminished by injury, the 200 IM was his only opportunity to win individual gold and beat his friend, rival and Rio roommate Phelps. Instead, Lochte slowed dramatically after the backstroke leg.
Lochte, 32, was gracious as always but not his usual sunny self as he exited the pool deck at his fourth and perhaps final Olympics.
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“Well, it was sentimental. Every chance I get on those blocks and he’s right there, it’s amazing,” Lochte said of Phelps, who was in the adjacent lane. “I felt great the first quarter. I don’t know. Something happened. I got tight. It wasn’t there. I gave it my all. I guess it just wasn’t that good.”
Phelps said an encouraging message from former University of Miami and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis gave him a second wind.
“I thought about it the last 50 and that’s what got me home,” he said. “I read it right before I walked out. Ray is like a big brother to me.”
While Phelps’ dominance is expected, a new American star emerged Thursday when Simone Manuel tied for first place in the 100 freestyle. Houston-born and Stanford-bound Manuel, 20, became the first black woman to win an individual swimming gold medal at the Olympics. She and Canada’s Penny Oleksiak upstaged Australia’s Campbell sisters and shared the podium after they touched in the identical Olympic record time of 52.70.
“I think it means a lot with some of the issues going on in the world, like police brutality,” she said. “This medal is not just for me but for the African-Americans who came before me, like Maritza [Correia] and Cullen Jones. This medal is also for those who come behind me and find a love and drive for this sport.”
Manuel said she has felt pressure to succeed in the predominantly white sport.
“Coming into this race I tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders,” she said. “I hope it does go away. I’m happy to help diversify swimming but hope for the day when it’s not ‘Simone the black swimmer’ because that means I’m not supposed to win gold medals or set records. I want to win just like anybody else.”
There were two previous ties for gold in swimming at the Olympics, in the 1984 women’s 100 free and in the 2000 men’s 50 free, when Anthony Ervin and Gary Hall Jr. finished in 21.98.
Manuel and Phelps both got emotional on the medal podium when the national anthem played.
Phelps, 31, is now four-for-four in his fifth Olympics. He became the first swimmer to win the same event four consecutive times. His four golds in Rio have increased his record Olympic total to 22, plus 26 overall. He’s won 13 individual golds, and he’s still got the 100 butterfly on Friday and the medley relay on Saturday. He won his 100 fly semifinal six minutes after his 200 IM medal ceremony.
Phelps won eight golds in Beijing 2008. He could win six here.
“I was joking with Ryan, ‘Man, how did we do all these events in 2008?’” he said. “My legs are hurting. I’m tired.”
Phelps, whose time was less than half a second off his 2008 world record, was asked if he would reconsider his decision to retire. He laughed.
“Things started hitting me this morning,” he said. “I only have to put a racing suit on two more times and I only have to warm down one more time. Wow, tonight was my last 200 ever. That’s an exciting one.
“It’s wild to think that over 20 years ago I learned to swim and it’s all stopping competition-wise in the next 48 hours. It’s crazy to think Ryan and I have been on Olympic and national teams since 2004. He’s definitely one of the toughest competitors I’ve ever faced.”
Phelps has won every Olympic 200 IM since 2004. Lochte has won every world championships 200 since 2009 and holds the world record of 1:54.00. Together, they own the top 10 fastest times in the event.
Asked if he wished he’d been born in a different era, Lochte said no. Winner of six Olympic golds and 12 total, he joined Phelps on the gold-medal winning 4x200 free relay on Tuesday.
“I probably wouldn’t be the swimmer I am today if it wasn’t for Michael because we bring out the best of each other,” said Lochte, who grew up in Daytona Beach and swam at Florida. “He helps push me and I help push him.”
Lochte had hoped to swim five or six events in Rio but a groin injury at trials limited him to qualification in only the 200 IM.
He has no imminent retirement plans, but doesn’t expect Phelps to make another comeback. He called Phelps’ four straight 200 IM victories an “unbelievable” feat.
“Anything he does in the sport he deserves because I know how hard he trains day in and day out. I’m happy for him,” Lochte said. “We’ve all had ups and downs throughout our lives. It’s just how you handle it. Everything that’s been thrown at him, he’s been able to handle it really well. I’m proud of him.”
Ryan Murphy won the men’s 200-meter backstroke to keep the U.S. streak alive in that event. American swimmers have won it in six consecutive Olympics. Murphy finished in 1:53.62, a third of a second ahead of Australia’s Mitchell Larkin.