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By John Lohn
LONDON, August 2. THAT was it. Hope you had the chance to record all 114 seconds, and the 27 hundredths. If not, find someone willing to get you a copy, because for the avid fan of the sport, it is must-have material. Consider it historic footage which can be brought out when withdrawal starts to take over.
Michael Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte. Ryan Lochte vs. Michael Phelps. It is no more, at least in the present. The rivalry, which is one of the best the sport has ever seen, is part of history. That much became official on Thursday night when the Team USA superstars squared off in the final of the 200 individual medley at the Olympic Games in London.
In the final installment of the rivalry, which dates to 2004 but didn't get really hot until 2008, Phelps snared his first individual gold medal of these Games, fighting off Lochte to win an Olympic title for the 16th time. The final numbers say Phelps covered the distance in 1:54.27, to the 1:54.90 of his countryman. For Lochte, the race followed about 25 minutes after he took a surprising bronze medal in the 200 backstroke, an event in which he was the defending champ.
Phelps, as he has done so many times during his illustrious career, put together a perfect race. He opened up a sizable advantage on the butterfly and backstroke legs, and even outsplit Lochte on the breaststroke leg. That cushion was enough to hold off Lochte. The victory made Phelps the first man in history to win the same event at three consecutive Olympiads, and allowed him to join Australia's Dawn Fraser (100 freestyle) and Hungary's Krisztina Egerszegi (200 backstroke) in the exclusive club.
Lochte has no intentions of going anywhere, except to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. He'll be 31 then, but a Brazilian appearance is part of his game plan. That means he'll stay in the water, working relentlessly to become as big as Phelps. As for the 20-time Olympic medalist, he's done after the London Games, eager to divorce swimming. Phelps and the sport have had separations in the past, but this is the end. He says no reconciliation. That, too, means the end of the Phelps-Lochte rivalry.
It was fitting their classic duels came to an end at the Olympic Games. It wouldn't have been right anywhere else, even the World Championships. It had to happen on the biggest stage in sports, with billions of people watching around the world. They have long been center-ring attractions, so the final tango needed to be in the spotlight, too.
It's been discussed frequently what Phelps has meant to swimming. Here's the short version:
* He's brought more interest — fans and sponsors.
* He's forced the opposition to enhance their level of excellence.
* He's proven certain performances, previously doubted, can be achieved.
* He's encouraged young kids to get involved, which will pay dividends for USA Swimming down the road.
But the pairing of Phelps and Lochte has done a great deal, too. Sports always lends itself to rivalries. Magic vs. Bird. Ali vs. Frazier. Navratilova vs. Evert. The list goes on. Swimming has had its rivalries along the way as well. Popov vs. Hall. East Germany vs. the United States. Yet, nothing has compared to Phelps vs. Lochte. Because of their abilities and hatred of losing, their rivalry has become familiar to the Average Joe.
Look at the coverage the sport has gotten over the past few years, largely because of Phelps but also because of his head-to-head affairs with his fellow 27-year-old. People care. They can get coverage not just in niche areas, but also from Sports Illustrated, ESPN, NBC, USA Today, etc. It's been eaten up on a regular basis.
Michael Phelps is the best thing that ever happened to Ryan Lochte. After Lochte saw Phelps take the Great Eight in Beijing, he knew he had to change his approach. He wanted the same kind of success, or something close, and was going to have to make adjustments in order for it to happen. He wanted to beat Phelps. Basically, he got sick and tired of losing to his countryman.
This part of the story is well-known by now. In his pursuit of Phelps, Lochte started to train harder in the pool. He pounded his body with grueling workouts and triples at some of the Grand Prix meets. He started to eat better, cutting out the McDonald's and other fast-food brands. He entered into a dryland program which included strongman training under the tutelage of Matt DeLancey. It all paid off with Lochte becoming the best swimmer in the world in 2010 and 2011.
As much as Lochte benefited from Phelps, the same can be said in the other direction. Maybe not as much, but it can be stated. After watching Lochte garner the top spot, thanks to his performances at the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships and the 2011 World Championships, Phelps got serious again. He wasn't going to retire in poor form. No, Phelps hasn't been the guy from Beijing. That would have been impossible. And while he's dropped some individual events in London, he's been pretty damn good.
It was appropriate to see their final race so hyped, and for there to be a gold-silver finish for the United States. With Phelps on the way out, it was also fitting that he collected another individual gold medal, what he's best known for doing. For those in attendance, the ticket will be worth saving. Meanwhile, if Phelps and Lochte are part of a trivia question, make sure you know the details to their final matchup: Site. Event. Winner. The answers would be: London Olympics. 200 individual medley. Michael Phelps.
Then go home and watch the clash once more. It's not something you want to forget. And you won't get to see it live ever again.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn