Commentary by Jeff Commings
PHOENIX, Arizona, December 17. WATCHING Ryan Lochte finish second in the 200 backstroke at the FINA Short Course World Championships was shocking, moreso than seeing Tyler Clary and Ryosuke Irie pass Lochte down the final stretch in the event at the Olympics. Has Lochte's time come and gone in this event?
It's been almost six years since Lochte took over the mantle as the best 200 backstroker on the planet. When he beat Aaron Peirsol at the 2007 world championships, Lochte finally had an event fans believed he could call his own, especially since Michael Phelps routinely shied away from it. That status was cemented at the 2008 Olympics, and even though Peirsol had briefly reclaimed the title of backstroke king in 2009, Lochte stole it back the following year.
But Lochte showed a vulnerability in the 200 backstroke this year, a radical change in the event that was unexpected. At last year's world championships, Lochte won the 200 back by more than a second, a comfortable margin leading into the Olympic year. But Clary and Irie dug deep and usurped Lochte in the final 25 meters in London, even outkicking Lochte off the final turn. Radoslaw Kawecki pretty much did the same last weekend. No one outkicks Lochte on the final turn, yet that is what we have seen twice in the past four months.
Perhaps it's time for Lochte to step aside from the 200 back and put all of his focus on the 200 IM and 200 free in preparation for what could be his final Olympics. There's no shame for Lochte if he trims down his schedule. He's already announced he's dropping the 400 IM, though that statement holds as much water as Phelps' “official” retirement announcement right now. Yes, it is attractive for Lochte in 2016 to race in at least four individual events, but he'll be 32 years old then, and his muscles will not have the ability to flush out the lactate as easily, no matter his crazy level of talent. With just two individual events and two or three relays, that could be more than enough for Lochte in Brazil.
And just imagine the possibilities of a fresh Lochte going after his world record in the 200 IM, with no 200 back to handle from 20 minutes earlier. And if he drops the 400 IM, that makes him a little fresher for a great battle with Yannick Agnel in the 200 free.
But Lochte will never be comfortable with a reduced schedule. Perhaps he could substitute the 100 fly for the 200 back. With his third-place finish in the 100 fly at the Olympic Trials this year, Lochte has shown that he's got a great event to fall back on in this Olympic cycle. And fans will love that. Instead of being done with competition on the fifth day at the Olympics (the day of the 200 back-200 IM double), Lochte could be a part of the Olympic marketing blitz through the end of the swimming competition, should he make the Olympic squad in the 100 fly.
Let's not forget the 200 fly, either. With Phelps gone, the top two spots domestically are up for grabs, and anyone who does the 400 IM as well as Lochte can handle 200 meters of butterfly. He can use these in-between years to test his capabilities in it, and I wouldn't be surprised if we found him on, say, the Pan Pacific team in the 200 fly.
Do not weep for Lochte's potential departure from the 200 back, and here are five reasons why you should still remain excited about the United States' future in that event: Tyler Clary, Ryan Murphy, Jack Conger, Nick Thoman, Jacob Pebley.