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Column by John Lohn, Swimming World senior writer
SHANGHAI, China, July 26. HE still holds the title of greatest Olympian in history. He's brought attention to the sport like no one before him. For now, though, Michael Phelps has lost his identity as the best swimmer in the world. That much was affirmed in Shanghai Tuesday night when Ryan Lochte ascended to the top of the medals podium in the 200 freestyle and onto the throne of the water world.
Flash back to last summer and the Pan Pacific Championships. It was in Irvine, Calif. where Lochte started to make a push for the title he now owns. He won six gold medals at the competition – four individually – and jumpstarted this topic of conversation: Can he supplant Phelps as the sport's premier performer?
Yes, Lochte produced an extraordinary showing in Southern California, but none of his triumphs arrived over Phelps, the measuring stick in the sport – even if Phelps has long been measured by a different ruler. Now, however, Lochte has toppled his good friend and rival in front of a world audience, something that once seemed impossible, especially after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The question that arose last August has been answered.
For years, thanks to dominating efforts all over the globe, Phelps has humbled and mentally thrashed the opposition. Few have confidently stepped onto the blocks with the notion that Phelps was beatable. Lochte? He's another story. The man with the care-free persona, which has been likened to that of the Jeff Spicoli character from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, has always believed he could get to Phelps' level, and beyond.
He has arrived at that point, with more to come.
"I guess it was my time tonight," Lochte said.
There was a time when Lochte was the bridesmaid of American swimming, not quite able to keep up with Aaron Peirsol in the 200 backstroke and unable to edge ahead of Phelps in the 200 individual medley. Gradually, he removed that distinction. It officially started with a victory over Peirsol in the 200 back final at the 2007 World Champs in Melbourne, although Peirsol rebounded two years later in Rome. It continued when Lochte, though not in head-to-head form, bettered Phelps' top time in the 200 individual medley.
Along the way, Lochte made the 200 freestyle into a major event and not just something he contested for the sake of American-relay support. His 400 IM, meanwhile, has continued to improve, giving Lochte an arsenal that is – ahem – Phelpsian. Heck, the guy handled the butterfly leg for the United States at the 2010 World Short Course Championships, registering the best split of the competition as the United States claimed gold. And, he's among the best in the world in the 100 back, an event he rarely gets to race in peak form.
Perhaps it's fitting that Lochte's rise to the top spot in the sport came in the 200 free, an event that boasted – arguably – the best field of the competition. In his coronation at the Oriental Sports Center, the Floridian did what Phelps has done so often to his foes: He ate them up in the latter half of the race. Lochte's split for the third lap was 26.29, nearly a second quicker than Phelps. It was that stretch of the pool that changed the race.
"I knew Michael wanted to go out to clean water, so I had to stay in striking distance and just work what I'm good at, those underwaters on each turn," Lochte said. "It's a big confidence boost. Hopefully, this win will help carry me in my other races. I still have a big load."
This column is not suggesting Phelps is incapable of regaining his status as the global No. 1. By going 1:44.79 for the silver medal, the North Baltimore poster boy uncorked a stellar performance and showed that, despite having backed off his training while tending to other interests, he remains a global force. More, considering his vile distaste for defeat, you can bet Phelps will go to the wall in preparation for London.
Still, Phelps will be an underdog when he and Lochte square off in the 200 individual medley and, for the first time since anyone can remember, he likely will be beaten by the same person on two occasions in one meet. When you look at that scenario, it speaks to both Phelps' legacy and the emergence of Lochte as a special talent.
And the new Man to Beat.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn