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Column by John Lohn
LONDON, England, July 28. SOME will argue the exchange was made at the 2010 version of the Pan Pacific Championships. Others will contend the changeover occurred at last summer's World Championships in Shanghai. For any of the holdouts, the torch between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte — for the role of world's premier swimmer — was passed on the opening night of the Olympic Games in London.
A column here earlier today encouraged followers of the sport to appreciate the farewell tour of Phelps, who is competing in his final Games. That feeling hasn't changed one bit. For all he's done in the pool and for the profile of swimming, Phelps deserves every bit of adulation as he walks away. But after what unfolded Saturday at the Aquatic Centre in the 400 individual medley, Lochte is now Poseidon.
In what was expected to be the first of two sensational duels between the American superstars, Lochte blew Phelps out of the water en route to the gold medal in the 400 medley, winning in a time of 4:05.18. That was nearly four seconds clear of silver medalist Thiago Pereira of Brazil and bronze medalist Kosuke Hagino of Japan. Notice something missing? That's right, Phelps failed to medal, finishing fourth in 4:09.28.
From the opening butterfly leg, Phelps didn't have the pop we're accustomed to seeing. It confirmed that his mediocre preliminary performance wasn't an aberration. After the fly leg, he couldn't get things rolling in the backstroke, breaststroke or freestyle. His turns, too, lacked their usual power. As for Lochte, he dazzled.
Since the Beijing Games concluded, Lochte has pointed toward becoming THE MAN, and has made the appropriate steps through the years on the way to that distinction. With six gold medals each at the aforementioned Pan Pacs and World Champs, Lochte established the groundwork and proved himself capable of being the sport's poster boy. Still, he needed a win over Phelps at the Olympics to convince everyone. That goal has been reached.
“Going into this, I knew I was capable of winning,” Lochte said. “I heard the fans screaming throughout the whole race and definitely had my whole family here behind me. I know Michael gave it everything he had and that's all you can ask for.”
By opening his meet with a triumph, Lochte has set himself up to be the face of the London Games, as Phelps was the face of Athens and Beijing. What he's also done is officially taken control of the sport, with no one able to argue against that fact any longer.
**The numbers say it all, so we'll start there: A world record of 4:28.43, which included a closing 100 freestyle of 58.68. That's what China's 16-year-old Ye Shiwen turned out on the way to gold in the 400 individual medley. Over the final two laps, she made the rest of the field look like it was going nowhere, and her split was just three hundredths slower than what Ryan Lochte did in the men's version of the event.
Followers of the sport will not be stunned by Ye's freestyle prowess, as she blasted the competition to win gold in the 200 medley at the 2011 World Champs. Still, going sub-59 for the last leg is ridiculous. Any athlete wanting to beat her would need at least a two-body length lead, if not more. So powerful was Ye that she made up the difference on Beisel in the early stages of freestyle.
**With the way Peter Vanderkaay swam in the 400 freestyle, collecting the bronze medal in 3:44.6, the United States has to use the three-time Olympian on the 800 free relay. Although Vanderkaay didn't qualify for relay duty in the 200 free at the Olympic Trials, the coaching staff has the discretion to use any athlete on the team in relay action. Vanderkaay certainly appears to be a good fit.
**As the evening session started, there were a good number of empty seats at the Aquatic Centre, especially in the lower level. That's a disappointing development for one of the highest-profile sports on the docket.
**The second day of action will feature the men's 400 freestyle relay and will provide the United States with a chance to retain the title it captured in Beijing behind Jason Lezak's legendary anchor leg. Considering the way Australia is lining up, the American contingent might need something similar to Lezak's heroics in order to push the Aussies.
Nicknamed the Weapons of Mass Destruction by the Australian media, due to the nicknames of James Magnussen (Missile) and James Roberts (Rocket), Australia looks to have a commanding edge over the United States, France and Russia. Beyond Magnussen and Roberts, who have both been 47-point this year, the Aussies also feature Matt Targett and Eamon Sullivan.
It will be interesting to see what lineup the U.S. sends to the blocks for the championship final, but whoever goes out there will need to deliver a perfect race if the Americans don't want to drop this event for the third time in four Olympiads.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn