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By John Lohn
OMAHA, Nebraska, July 1. THE final chapter is all that remains to be written in the epic career of Michael Phelps. That's the reality now that Phelps, the greatest swimmer in history, has wrapped up his fourth and final Olympic Trials. The only addendum to what has been a masterpiece manuscript is chronicling what happens at the Olympic Games in London later this month.
It's a weird feeling, isn't it? Five weeks from now, Phelps will be done with the sport on a competitive level. He'll leave with more Olympic gold medals than anyone in history (he already has that record) and if he adds three medals of any color, he'll hold the standard for most Olympic hardware. That record currently belongs to Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina with 18 medals.
There was a time not long ago when questions arose as to whether Phelps would be a force in London. With the 27-year-old skipping practices and hardly dedicated to the sport he dominated, the door was opened for another athlete to move to the top of the totem pole. Enter Ryan Lochte, who has been the No. 1 guy for the past two years.
Following Phelps' performance at Trials, however, it's safe to say they'll go to London in a No. 1 and No. 1A duel for swimming supremacy. Who will come out on top? A little more than a week of competition will make that determination. What we do know is this: Phelps has gotten things together enough to once again enthrall the sporting world.
After dropping the 400 individual medley to Lochte on the opening night of action, thus enhancing the notion Lochte had his number, Phelps fought back at the CenturyLink Center. His victory in the 100 butterfly on Sunday night was his third straight decision of his rival, joining thrilling wins in the 200 freestyle and 200 individual medley.
Phelps doesn't head to the United States' training camp at the University of Tennessee next week with the same invincibility he knew in 2008. That was never going to be the case, however, not with Lochte's emergence as a much more accomplished and powerful performer. Still, Phelps has to be feeling good about his ability to beat Lochte, something he couldn't pull off at last summer's World Championships in Shanghai.
“Neither one of us wants to lose, and when we get in the water, we race as hard as we can,” Phelps said. “Whether we're playing cat and mouse, by the end we're going all out. They're fun and exciting races, and (Lochte) has proved that he's been the best over the last couple of years. For me, I've always been about being able to race the best.”
Major improvements are expected from Phelps and Lochte in London, as they've been negotiating this meet at less than full power. The idea is to peak at the biggest moment, so saving a little bit of ammunition was certainly a priority this week. Based on the sterling exhibitions they put on in Omaha, the events of London should be mesmerizing.
For months leading up to the Olympic Trials, Phelps and coach Bob Bowman declared Phelps would not contest the same program he embraced in Beijing. But that's exactly what Phelps will do across the pond, as his schedule will feature five individual events and three relays. The parallel to Beijing will cause some to expect another eight gold medals. Fans anticipating that output should be cautioned: If that is the thought process, disappointment will likely arise.
Going back to the Beijing Games, Phelps needed a perfect meet to win eight gold medals. Not only did he have to rely on the greatest relay split of all-time (courtesy of Jason Lezak) for the United States to win the 400 free relay, he had to have the perfect finish in the 100 butterfly to pull out a victory over Milorad Cavic by a hundredth of a second.
Even Bowman has warned of making comparisons between 2008 and this summer, fully aware of the fortuitous breaks which buoyed Phelps in China. At the same time, it's going to be enticing and entertaining to watch Phelps manage the same program, and battle Lochte much of the way. As satisfied as Phelps was with this meet, it was merely a launching pad to London.
“The next race is the one that counts,” he said. “I know that, and that's one thing I'm looking forward to. There are some things that I want to finish my career with and I know they're going to be challenging. (Bowman) and I have a couple of weeks to try to perfect those.”
Enjoy. After that, he's out the door.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn