THEY WORE matching high-tech Speedo LZR suits and swam in a temporary pool designed for speed. But even as Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte pushed each other through a dramatic record chase at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha on Sunday night, what brought the crowd of 12,000 to its feet was not merely the clock but also the sight of the greatest swimmer in the world struggling—in one of his best events, the 400-meter individual medley—to fight off an unexpectedly formidable rival. ¬∂ After Phelps built a body-length lead in the butterfly leg, Lochte, the world-record holder in the 200 backstroke, flipped onto his back for the second 100, watching himself gain ground on Phelps via the Jumbotron above the pool. After the breaststroke leg, a Lochte strength, the two were virtually even. As the frenzied crowd roared, the two pushed off the final wall, with Phelps ahead by a fingernail. "I didn't want to lose that race," said Phelps later. "I did whatever I could to get my hand on the wall first."
Both swimmers broke Phelps's year-old world record of 4:06.22. After he had outtouched Lochte by .83 of a second to win in 4:05.25, Phelps gave his worthy adversary an over-the-laneline embrace. Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, called the final "one of the best swims I've ever seen." Phelps described it as "one of the most painful races of my life."
The final was certainly the biggest challenge Phelps has faced in the 400 IM since he first set a world mark in the event six years ago, and an indication that his quest in Beijing to equal or better Mark Spitz's 1972 haul of seven gold medals may be even harder than anticipated. "My hat's off to Ryan, because like a bulldog, he wouldn't let go," said Olympic great John Naber, who watched the race from the stands. "You [still] make the Olympic team by finishing second. The third-place guy was seven seconds back. Why hurt yourself to finish first here? They are both such racehorses. I predict an equally exciting race in Beijing. This isn't over."
The 400 IM was just the opening salvo in what promised to be a full week of Phelps-Lochte showdowns. They could face off in as many as five events in Omaha, including the 200 IM, in which they went one-two at the Athens Olympics, and the 200 back, expected to be one of the most hotly contested races on the schedule.
Although Lochte became the first person in seven years to beat Aaron Peirsol in the latter event when he set his world record at the 2007 world championships in Melbourne, he has never beaten Phelps in any long-course (50-meter pool) race. But Lochte believes it's just a matter of time before he does. "Some swimmers are swimming for second against Michael, because they don't feel they can beat him," he says. "I'm the total opposite. I feel I can beat him."
Lochte thought Sunday could have been the night. "It was my best time, but I hate to lose. I don't like it at all," he said. "As soon as I touched the wall, I knew there were a bunch of places during the race that I could improve. That's what I'm going to do this month. Hopefully I'll be a lot faster in Beijing."
PHELPS CONSIDERS Lochte one of his best friends on the national team—they bonded four years ago over a mutual appreciation of hip-hop music and girls—and he loves racing him. "Having Ryan next to me helped me go that fast," Phelps said after the 400 IM. But he won't admit to getting any special motivation from Lochte when they aren't going head-to-head. "I'll report a time that Ryan or someone else did, and Michael will be like, So?" says Bowman. "Meanwhile I'm thinking, Wow, I need to work on your breaststroke! I'm the one who is more affected by what the competition is doing. To Michael, it's all the same. He's going to do his race, and he doesn't care what the other people do. I think that's part of his secret."
Likewise, Lochte, 23, a two-time NCAA swimmer of the year at Florida, isn't laser-focused on Phelps. "I don't wake up and think, Michael Phelps," he says. "I'd go crazy if I thought that [way]. I'm just trying to become the best swimmer I can be—and trying to become the best swimmer in the world."
Many people think he'd be just that if his 23-year-old rival had chosen another sport. "If Michael Phelps wasn't around, Ryan Lochte would be Michael Phelps," says Phelps's Club Wolverine teammate Erik Vendt. "It's rare enough to have one swimmer like that, but two at the same time?"
Lochte grew up in a swimming family. His mom, Ileana, coached him—and frequently kicked him out of practice for screwing around—until he was 11, when his dad, Steve, a former junior college All-America, moved the family from upstate New York to Florida to start the Daytona Beach Swimming club team, which he still coaches. But Lochte's identity has never been entirely wrapped up in the sport. He surfs, he skateboards, he emulates his musical idol, the rapper Lil Wayne, by sporting colorful shoes on his feet and diamond-studded grills on his teeth. But behind the perpetually sleepy voice and the mellow surfer-dude facade is a meticulous organizer ("His T-shirts have to be hung up on hangers, pressed and coordinated by color," says Steve) and a tough-as-nails competitor. Lochte has a history of sustaining worrisome injuries just weeks before major competitions, but he has never let them get in the way of his training or performance. While playing a game of manhunt with friends one night as a high school senior, he fell 20 feet out of a tree. He suffered a concussion, amnesia and a severely bruised shoulder. Yet three weeks later at the U.S. nationals in Fort Lauderdale, he won the consolation final of the 400 IM and qualified for the Pan Am Games. Five weeks before the 2007 worlds he lost control of his scooter while riding it in Gainesville, Fla., and flew 47 feet before landing in some bushes. Though doctors initially feared he had broken several bones, Lochte escaped with a hairline fracture in his right foot and a constellation of bruises. He missed just one afternoon of practice and went on to win five medals in Melbourne. This year's medical scare came courtesy of Carter, Lochte's seven-month-old Doberman puppy. While chasing after the runaway canine one day last month, Lochte fell and severely twisted his left ankle. Again, he missed only one afternoon of practice. "When I found out it was a high-ankle sprain, not a broken bone, I thought, That's par for the course. We're [still] on track," says Steve.
BREATHTAKING VERSATILITY is not limited to the men's side of the U.S. team. Phelps's former North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate Katie Hoff launched her campaign to make the Olympic squad in six individual events by beating 15-year-old Elizabeth Beisel in the women's 400 IM on Sunday in a world-record 4:31.12. Four years ago, when she was 15, Hoff was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team in Athens. Overcome by nerves, she finished seventh in the 200 IM and didn't make the 400 IM final. Since then she has won six world-championship gold medals (two apiece in both individual medleys and the 800 free relay); set, lost and regained the world record in the 400 IM; and expanded her repertoire to include every freestyle event between the 100 and the 800. "You really have to go back to Shirley Babashoff, who won every freestyle event, the 100 through 800, and the 400 individual medley [at the 1976 Olympic trials] to see a swimmer as versatile," says national team director Mark Schubert, who coached Babashoff in the mid-'70s.
Hoff started swimming the 800 seriously just two years ago, yet at a meet in April she turned in a time of 8:19.70, the ninth fastest in history. At a meet in Columbia, Mo., in February, she knocked nearly a second off her PR in the 100 free, lowering it to 54.28. "All the coaches got excited and looked at each other, like, Wow, could she make the 4√ó100 relay too?" says Schubert.
Hoff wouldn't mind adding that to her list. "I like swimming lots of events because it takes the pressure off a little bit," she says. "You can kind of spread your nervous energy out through all of your events. You don't have to focus in on one and think, This is my only shot."
Because she has been focusing more on freestyle, Hoff had thought she'd have a better chance of setting a world record in one of those events at the trials than at regaining the IM mark she lost to Australian Stephanie Rice in March. "Stephanie really raised the bar when she broke my old record," she says. "This makes me excited for Beijing."
JOINING HOFF and Phelps on the winner's podium on Sunday night was 22-year-old Olympic vet Larsen Jensen, who had to beat three of his best friends, Peter Vanderkaay, Vendt and Klete Keller, to win the 400 free, in an American-record 3:43.53. "I wish all four of us could go, but that's not the way it works," said Jensen, who is the first swimmer to hold all three American distance records (the 400, 800 and 1,500 free) at once since his mentor Brian Goodell in the early '80s. Jensen, who won silver in the 1,500 behind Aussie Grant Hackett in Athens, credits his improvement in the 400 in part to his coach at USC, Dave Salo. "We're taught to sprint the mile, more or less, so that takes care of the 400," Jensen says. And though he is reluctant to give this too much credit, it should be noted that he changed his routine by listening to music—"some heavy-metal junk," he says—as he walked to the pool deck for Sunday's race. "I love Frank Sinatra more than anything, but it's not something you listen to before a race," he says. "I can't very well be thinking Fly Me to the Moon as I hit the water."
But in some sense, that is what many swimmers are thinking about at these Olympic trials—going where they haven't gone before. For Hoff, it's becoming the first woman to win six events at one trials. For Phelps, it's winning eight gold medals at one Olympics. And for Lochte, it's preventing Phelps from doing that. "What he is going for, no one else has done that," says Lochte of Phelps. "If he does, that's awesome. If he doesn't, that means I've done something right."
"You have to go back to SHIRLEY BABASHOFF to see a swimmer as versatile," says Schubert of Hoff's IM and freestyle range.
Jensen is the first to hold ALL THREE AMERICAN DISTANCE RECORDS at once since his mentor Brian Goodell in the early '80s.
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MULTITASKERS Phelps (far left) edged Lochte in the 400 IM, but is expected to battle him several more times at the trials.
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MADEMOISELLE BUTTERFLY Teenager Hoff reclaimed the world record in the 400 IM final and is trying to make the Olympic team in five other events.
SPEED OF SOUND Jensen credits his improvement in the 400 free to more sprint work—and some heavy preswim tunes.