Olympic Trials Flashback: The 2012 Showdown Between Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps in 400 IM

Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps

Olympic Trials Flashback: The 2012 Showdown Between Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps in 400 IM

Through more than a century of United States Olympic Trials, several showdowns have earned iconic status. Count the 400-meter individual medley duel between Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps at the 2012 edition in Omaha as a great race in Trials history.


There was a time when he was deemed untouchable, having elevated the sport’s bar to a unique stratosphere. Dozens of world records. Mesmerizing times. Fistfuls of Olympic gold medals. Whatever Michael Phelps fancied was possible seemingly came to fruition, headlined by his record eight-gold bonanza at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Along the way, Ryan Lochte etched out his own legacy. While the early stages of his career were defined by Bridesmaid status, particularly to Phelps and Aaron Peirsol, Lochte possessed a belief that – as cliché as it sounds – anyone was beatable.

Lochte knew the work he logged would be rewarded, allowing him to one day become an alchemist and turn his familiar silver and bronze hauls into gold. The 400-meter individual medley at the 2012 United States Olympic certainly ranks as a defining moment.


To garner a full understanding of Lochte’s status, it is necessary to dissect his career from 2004-2008. During this time, Lochte emerged on the global stage through consistent growth. An initial Olympic silver medal in the 200 individual medley at the 2004 Games in Athens proved his international worth and was followed by additional medley medals at the World Championships in 2005 and 2007.

More, Lochte used the 2007 and 2008 campaigns to rid himself of any “can’t-win-the-big-one” assertions. At the 2007 World Champs, Lochte knocked off Peirsol for gold in the 200 backstroke. A year later, at the Beijing Games, Lochte was crowned an Olympic champion, again defeating Peirsol in the 200 backstroke.

To that point, however, Lochte had been unable to solve the Phelps puzzle. It was a lock he remained unable to pick at the 2008 Olympic Games, where Lochte was beaten by Phelps in both medley disciplines. Nonetheless, Lochte maintained a belief that Phelps could be upended. It was a matter of time.

“I believe in myself,” Lochte once said. “A lot of people look at Michael and think he can’t be beaten. That’s not me. I know I can beat him. That’s the competitive edge that I have. I never feel like I’m going to lose, no matter who I’m racing. I always feel like I can win.”


In the years following Beijing, Phelps and Lochte followed differing paths. While Phelps’ singular focus on the sport waned, Lochte was nothing short of a man consumed with developing into the premier version of himself. By the time the 2011 World Champs in Shanghai rolled around, Lochte knew it was his time.

In two head-to-head matchups with Phelps, it was Lochte who walked away victorious, with Phelps claiming the silver medal. In the 200 freestyle, Lochte’s time of 1:44.44 bettered the 1:44.79 of Phelps. Additionally, Lochte clocked a world-record of 1:54.00 to beat Phelps and his 1:54.16 in the 200 IM. For good measure, Lochte added world titles in the 200 backstroke and 400 individual medley, events that did not feature Phelps.

After several years of chasing, Lochte had ascended swimming’s throne. Really, it was an achievement only those in Lochte’s inner circle thought was possible.


The 400 individual medley opened competition at the 2012 Olympic Trials, and no better script could have been written for the meet’s return to Omaha. A Phelps-Lochte battle to generate excitement? Yes, please. The event also featured the presence of Tyler Clary, who was the silver medalist in the 400 IM at the previous year’s Worlds.

With Trials continuing in an arena setting, the spectacle was enhanced by laser-light shows and in-arena hosts. What wasn’t anticipated were the flames that fired from the side of the deck as the athletes made their way down the pool on the opening butterfly leg. Yet, and especially looking back, the pyrotechnics fit the occasion.

At the transition from fly to backstroke, it was Phelps who owned the lead, his 55.66 split slightly quicker than the 55.88 of Lochte and the 55.99 of Clary. Through backstroke, the trio remained tight, with Clary taking the lead at the midway point in 1:58.04, followed by Lochte (1:58.20) and Phelps (1:58.49).

There was little doubt Clary would drop off the pace on the breaststroke leg, and that is indeed the scenario which unfolded. By the 300-meter mark, Clary sat in third, more than two seconds adrift of Lochte, who had the lead at 3:08.53. But over that third 100 meters, Lochte had also opened up a sizable advantage over Phelps, who was second in 3:09.81.

Lochte extended his lead on the first length of freestyle and while Phelps cut into the deficit on the closing lap, Lochte had built too much of a cushion. At the touch, Lochte had victory in 4:07.06, Phelps in the runnerup position behind a mark of 4:07.89. Clary was third in 4:09.92.

“In 2008, Michael Phelps set the limit,” Lochte said. “(Seven) world records, eight gold medals. That’s amazing. But he’s human. He’s not a fish or anything like that. He’s just like all of us. He trained hard to get there. But I knew it was possible.”


At Trials, Phelps reversed the outcome with Lochte in the 200 individual medley and 200 freestyle. The men then squared off again at the Olympic Games in London. In the 200 individual medley, Phelps topped Lochte in what would be the third of four straight Olympic titles in the event. In the 400 IM, Lochte again prevailed, posting a career-best time of 4:05.18 for a dominant win. Stunningly, Phelps finished off the podium in fourth.

“This is my year,” Lochte said. “I’ve put in the hard work and trained my butt off for four years. There is no better way to start an Olympics.”

It was years in construction and belief.


2024 Olympic Trials

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