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LONDON -- No matter what happens in the London Aquatics Centre pool Thursday night, one thing is almost certain: We are bound to see something we will never see again.
The flashbulb-inducing moment will come in the 200-meter individual medley final, where the two biggest stars in American swimming, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, will go head-to-head for likely the last time.
Phelps has said he plans to retire after these Games and insisted there will be no change-of-heart comeback in 2016. And after Thursday, although the duo will join forces in the 4x100 medley relay Saturday, only Phelps has an individual event remaining (100 butterfly); in terms of head-to-head matchups between the two American heavyweights, Thursday night will be it.
"We're going to race each other, and we're going to race each other hard," Phelps said. "It could be one of the races like trials where it comes down to the touch."
At the U.S. Olympic trials in June, Phelps edged Lochte by .09 of a second to win the 200 IM. It was one of his three victories against Lochte in four events. But his combined margin of victory in those races was a mere 0.3 of a second. The story in London has been a different one. Broken down into 50-meter splits, Lochte has been faster than Phelps 11 out of 12 times they've been in the pool at the same time.
For Phelps, Thursday night's final is an opportunity for payback after losing to Lochte by more than seven seconds in their 400 IM showdown that kicked off the Olympic swimming program Sunday night. For Lochte, it's yet another chance to prove he is far more than Robin to Phelps' Batman.
"We love racing each other," Phelps said. "Neither one of us wants to lose."
Both swimmers have had a roller coaster of a week. After Lochte sent jaws dropping with his dominant 400 IM win, he was caught on the anchor leg of the 4x100 freestyle relay and then finished fourth in a deep field in Monday's 200 freestyle final. Afterward, Lochte's closest friend on the U.S. team, Cullen Jones, said he could tell the star wasn't himself.
"You have to know him really well to know he's down," Jones said. "He plays it off really well. You can tell he's lying through his teeth, or at least I can. But he's going to be all right. He's fine."
Lochte bounced back Wednesday, turning in the top preliminary and semifinal swims of the 200 IM and the second-fastest semifinal swim in the 200 back.
Phelps' week hasn't been any smoother. After failing to reach the podium in the 400 IM, he finished second in the 200 butterfly for the first time at a major international meet in 12 years. After winning eight gold medals four years ago in Beijing, he has stood atop the medal podium only once in London. That came in the 4x200 free relay, a victory that gave Phelps his record 19th Olympic medal.
The key Thursday night will be how well Phelps keeps up with Lochte on his weakest stroke, the breaststroke. Wednesday night, Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, was less than pleased with Phelps' breaststroke in the semifinals of the 200 IM and told his swimmer as much, prompting the latest bit of tension between the teacher and pupil who have worked together for more than 15 years.
"I yell at him about his breaststroke, and he gets mad and goes home in a pout," Bowman said afterward. "It wasn't yelling. He would say yelling. I said, 'Could you please get your breaststroke together so we can do the time you want to do in the final?' He said, 'Is there anything else I can do, boss?' I said, 'Yeah, I have a whole list of things, but right now I'm just concentrating on breaststroke.'"
Phelps' time of 1:57.11 in the semifinals has him seeded third, .98 of a second behind top-seeded Lochte. Lochte set the world record in the event during last year's world championships in Shanghai, becoming the first swimmer to set a world record after the banning of high-performance suits.
"Last night, I think Ryan and I both just wanted to get through," Phelps said. "That was pretty obvious."
Lochte will be challenged Thursday, as he is scheduled to swim the final of the 200 backstroke 31 minutes before his showdown with Phelps. Phelps, too, has another swim Thursday night (100 butterfly), but it's a semifinal heat that comes after the 200 IM.
Phelps is hoping a few minor mechanical tweaks will set himself up for victory.
"I think last night going into my breaststroke turn I was pretty slow," he said. "I wasn't really using my kickouts enough, so there are some small things I can do."
While Lochte was off Thursday morning, Phelps swam in the 100 fly prelims. He was in last place at 50 meters but came charging back to win in 51.71 seconds, the second-fastest time of the morning. He mentioned afterward it was the last preliminary swim of his career.
Thursday night will mark another ending, and everyone will be watching.