OMAHA, Neb. -- It had been a strange sight in these parts the past few days. The greatest swimmer who ever lived diving in the water, swimming for a few minutes and then touching the final wall after someone else.
That someone else was Ryan Lochte, and each time, it just didn't seem right. Michael Phelps won eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He had won a combined 40 golds in the Olympics and world championships. Our minds were used to the repetition. When the tall kid from Baltimore got in the water, he finished first. At least when it mattered most.
But this week, it wasn't happening. First, it was the 400-meter individual medley Monday night. Then it was the semifinals of the 200 freestyle Tuesday, with Lochte beating him by two-hundredths of a second.
If there was ever a must-win in swimming, Wednesday night's 200 freestyle final might have been it. Phelps needed to remind the world how races are supposed to end when he's in the water. And perhaps more importantly, he needed to remind himself.
That's exactly what he did -- barely -- by edging Lochte by five-hundredths of a second, temporarily restoring order to the swimming world, and reminding everyone that he doesn't plan on riding off into the sunset and collecting silver and bronze medals this summer.
After the race, the same swimmer and coach who said Monday night that first place didn't matter in a meet in which the top two finishers qualify for the Olympics changed their tone. First it was Phelps who reminded everyone that he hates to lose no matter what, and then it was Bob Bowman who admitted his swimmer had grown frustrated by losing to Lochte.
"There's always a psychological benefit [to winning]," Bowman said. "It's always good. Winning is never bad."
They say that in any true rivalry -- Yankees-Red Sox, Ali-Frazier, Sampras-Agassi -- both sides need to taste success. Both sides need to win. Both sides need to lose. Both sides need to be reminded about the pain brought on by failure, the ecstasy that comes with success. And now we have that here.
In trading first-place finishes in the first two of their four head-to-head Olympic trials showdowns, Phelps and Lochte are only building more anticipation for the battles they will have in London.
"Neither one of us would like to lose," Phelps said. "We're going to have a lot of races like that the next couple weeks and probably a couple more this week. That's how it shakes out the more we're in the water."
Wednesday night seemed like the perfect race. The two giants of swimming going stroke for stroke, splash for splash, bringing some 12,000 people to their feet in the ultimate emotional charge. At no point in the race were the two separated by more than one-tenth of a second.
At the first turn, Phelps led by eight-hundredths of a second. Lochte cut the deficit by .02 in the second 50 and .01 in the third 50. The two heavyweights then nearly held hands down the final stretch, each swimming the last 50 meters in an identical 26.59 seconds. In the end, the slim lead Phelps built in the beginning would be enough for victory.
"When we're next to each other, we kind of play cat and mouse," Phelps said. "We don't just jump out after it. We kind of see what each other does ... and when it comes down to it, we put every ounce of energy in that last 50."
But that isn't necessarily a good thing. For all the talk the past few days about Phelps and Lochte, for all the bandwidth and airtime and columns that have been chewed up on this rivalry, a new storyline emerged Wednesday night: Swimming's studs might actually be bad for each other. At least that was the suggestion of Bowman, who said both racers have gotten too accustomed to pacing themselves with each other and not swimming their own races.
Phelps' final time of 1 minute, 45.70 seconds was nearly three seconds off his personal best and a second and a half off Lochte's. Theirs were the third- and fourth-fastest times this year. Bowman warned that such a strategy could backfire come London with the likes of world record-holder Paul Biedermann and others likely racing against Phelps and Lochte.
Bowman said he and Lochte's coach, Gregg Troy, talked about such a scenario when the two first started racing against each other. It seems they might need such a discussion again.
"They are so focused on racing each other that they do stuff like tonight and not take it out fast," Bowman said. "They do the cat-and -mouse, and in the process of that, they forget to swim fast."
Bowman said Phelps' improved turns from Tuesday night, as well as the fact that he kept his head down when reaching for the wall, were the keys to Wednesday's win. On Tuesday night, Bowman said video replays showed Phelps turned around before he had touched out.
"I told him, 'When you're a half a body ahead, you can do the turn,'" Bowman said.
Lochte spoke briefly after the race, telling reporters, "I know what I need to do in London, so I'll definitely change that." An hour later, when he stood on the podium and was introduced to the crowd as a member of the 4x100 freestyle relay team, he laughed, smiled and appeared to have not a care in the world. In other words, he looked normal.
For Phelps, the 200 free was just the beginning of his night. Some 50 minutes after beating Lochte, he found himself on the blocks again, this time for the semifinal of the 200 butterfly. Phelps finished third in his heat with a time of 1:57.75. Less than two minutes later, when he joined Lochte on the podium, an exhausted Phelps barreled over and put his hands on his knees.
A few seconds later, he told post-race interviewer Summer Sanders and the fans in attendance, "I feel old." Of course, Phelps is a year younger than the 27-year-old Lochte.
And, at least for a night, he showed it.