Phelps’ Presence in 400 IM Makes Statement: Let’s Get It On

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By John Lohn

OMAHA, Nebraska, June 25. TECHNICALLY, the sport didn't need them to clash on the opening day of the United States Olympic Trials. Their identities, partly formed for the general public by foot-long sandwich and razor ads, have been long established. More, we were guaranteed of at least two duels later in the week.

Yet, when Michael Phelps officially committed to the 400 individual medley, a move which had been speculated for months but not officially confirmed until Sunday night, the selection competition for next month's Olympic Games in London got that much better, and was supplied with an instant jolt. In a way, Phelps' commitment to the event he once swore off was a statement: Let's Get It On!

This week's Trials will be filled with countless highlights, including down-to-the-wire finishes and jaw-dropping times. History, whether from past Trials in Indianapolis or Long Beach, declares that much to be true. Still, there is an overriding storyline which will present itself throughout the week and it is the Phelps-Lochte rivalry.

While Missy Franklin will garner her share of attention, the focal point will be how Phelps and Lochte perform. The hype machine leading to London is already in full force and the trio of showdowns between the world's best swimmers will only add to the hysteria that will be broadcast to the world by NBC next month. It was only fitting, then, to have Phelps and Lochte kick off the festivities at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha.

The No. 1 athlete in the sport the past two years, Lochte has routinely anointed this summer as his time, the moment when he can be granted official ownership of swimming's throne. To earn that distinction, he understands the requirements stated on the job description: Defeat Phelps when the 14-time Olympic gold medalist is in peak form.

In pursuit of that goal, Lochte started his weeklong workload with a strong showing in the preliminaries of the 400 IM. Racing in the last of 12 heats, Lochte posted the top qualifying time with an effort of 4:10.66, four seconds clear of Phelps. Lochte was in control the entire way, cruising through his first race of what could be a defining meet for the sport.

As comfortable as Lochte was with his race, his post-race comments indicated that he's keeping an eye on Phelps.

“That was the easiest 4:14 he's ever done,” Lochte said of Phelps. “It was the easiest ever in the world and he looked smooth. It's going to be a dogfight tonight, and not just between me and Michael. Tyler Clary is going to be there, too. But I have a lot left.”

For Phelps, his return to the 400 IM is a clear indication of his off-the-charts competitiveness and eagerness to embrace any and all challenges. After Beijing, and to the chagrin of coach Bob Bowman, Phelps made it clear that his days in the decathlon of swimming were over. Gradually, though, he dabbled with the event, racing it here and there. It was his 4:12 clocking from the Indianapolis Grand Prix, though, which made a return actually seem plausible.

An Olympic gold medal in the 400 IM would make Phelps the first man to prevail in an event in three consecutive Olympiads. Don't think that tidbit of information is unknown to the Baltimore Bullet, always looking to make history. Meanwhile, don't think Phelps wasn't aware of Lochte's rise to the top of the sport.

At last summer's World Championships, both meetings between Phelps and Lochte went to the Floridian. Lochte first defeated Phelps in the 200 freestyle, then held off his rival en route to establishing a world record in the 200 individual medley. How could Phelps swing the momentum back in his favor? That's easy: Take it to the guy who has moved ahead in the current pecking order.

In his preliminary swim, Phelps eased through the water, clearly holding back on all four strokes. His time was about a second slower than his preliminary performance from the 2008 Olympic Trials. That night, Phelps set a world record.

“It was all right,” Phelps said of his first outing. “I was fairly relaxed. I'm fine with it.”

The commentary from Phelps during these morning sessions will be limited, a combination of quick interviews and his intent to not give much away. But his efforts should speak loudly, and his decision to contest the 400 IM, thus setting up an additional matchup with Lochte, is a bellow that is a positive for swimming. It's also a declaration that he is ready for all challenges, and for a return to the top of the sport. Of course, Lochte will have something to say about that.

Basically, it's time to let the fireworks fly.

Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn