OMAHA, Neb. -- As the arena lights went down, the spotlights flickered on and the names of the newest members of the U.S. Olympic team were announced to the crowd, Aaron Peirsol couldn't help but smile. The meet was over, the show had come to an end and yet the arena was still full.
He thought about the past and the three times he had made an Olympic team. He thought about the future and the young swimmers who had impressed him all week. But, most of all, he thought about the present, about one of the greatest rivalries his sport has ever seen. Ryan Lochte. Michael Phelps. The battle for swimming supremacy. They were the reason not an empty seat could be found Friday night. They were the ones who brought a charge into the building each time they stepped on the pool deck.
"I just love it," said Peirsol, the five-time Olympic gold medalist who retired last year. "Everyone likes rivalries. We love them in sports. Just look at these people. No one is leaving. And then tomorrow night ..."
His voice trailed off as a trio of girls stopped to ask for a photo. Of course he obliged. But the point was made. Seemingly every minute of this eight-day swimming affair has pointed toward Saturday night, the last of three finals between Phelps and Lochte.
When Phelps wakes up Saturday morning, he will turn 27 years old. His special day will be like pretty much every other one from the past umpteen years. His mom and sister will express frustration at how hard he is to shop for, and he'll spend the majority of the day at a pool, trying to prove he's the greatest swimmer in the world. Yet, on this particular birthday, Lochte will swim in the lane next to him, trying to convince the world that he's wrong.
For five days now, these two giants of the water have gone head to head, much to the drooling delight of Peirsol and everyone else in the swimming world. Every stroke, every turn, every lap and every second has been analyzed, criticized, dissected, graded and evaluated. And heading into Saturday night, we have a tie.
Lochte struck first, beating Phelps in the 400-meter individual medley in Round 1 on Monday night. His margin of victory was a mere eight-tenths of a second. Then, two days later, Phelps reasserted himself, beating Lochte in the 200 freestyle by an even smaller margin, five-hundredths of a second. Saturday night will mark the third and final round of their trials battle, the last time they'll compete in the water together until London.
They both have admitted this week that they want to win, that it matters. Peirsol agrees.
"It does," he said. "It just does. I can't say no. Neither one of those guys wants to take second to the other, and that's what makes them so good."
After Friday night's semifinal heats of the 200 IM, Lochte predicted a "dogfight" Saturday, while Phelps rolled his eyes at one reporter's question about his standard of success.
"Obviously I want to win every race," Phelps said. "I don't think that's a real question. But tomorrow is my birthday so hopefully I get a birthday present."
He'll have to earn it. In fact, a victory would be well earned for both swimmers, especially Lochte, who faces a grueling double. His night will start with the 200 backstroke final, an event in which he is the top seed. Some 20 minutes later, he will meet Phelps in the water for their showdown.
"That's a very tough double," Peirsol said. "No ifs, ands or buts about it."
The scenario was a similar one Friday night, when Lochte swam in the semifinal heats of the 200 back and 200 IM. He finished with the top time in both. His 1-minute, 55.73-second mark was the fifth fastest in the 200 back in the world this year. His 200 IM, which he swam 46 minutes later with Phelps in the lane beside him, was even more impressive. Lochte shut it down at the 5-meter mark and literally glided to the wall to finish the race. Yet he still managed the fastest time in the world this year (1:55.51). Phelps had the second-fastest time of the heat at 1:56.66.
"It seems like every time I do those doubles, I get shorter and shorter rest intervals," Lochte said. "I think tomorrow I'll only have about 15 or 20 minutes. But you know what? I'm up for that challenge. It's something I've been doing for four years now ... challenging myself. I'm definitely ready."
This is where all the hard work is supposed to pay off. Running stairs at Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Pulling 450-pound chains 300 feet. Flipping 650-pound tires until he can't feel his legs. This is why Lochte spent the past four years pushing his body to its absolute limit -- so he could be ready for nights like Saturday.
It's one of the most challenging doubles in swimming because of the way the backstroke leans so heavily on using the legs. No one understands that better than Peirsol, the backstroke specialist who finished second to Lochte in the 200 back at the 2008 Beijing Games.
"With the back, you ride your legs more than any other stroke," Peirsol said. "As soon as your legs go, you're done. You fall apart. You die. You don't see people die in the 200 free like they do in the 200 back. I've died so bad. Ryan has died incredibly bad. It happens."
And yet, there was Peirsol on Friday night, peddling the idea that the double could actually be a good thing for Lochte, who could face the same double Aug. 2 in London.
"It takes away the tension, and a lot of what makes you go slower in swimming is tension," Peirsol said. "But after that first race, it's almost like you are just carefree. You know Ryan's 200 back will be very good. He'll come off that, be all fired up and just be like, 'Screw it.' Sometimes, that's when some of the best races happen."
Phelps has a double of his own Saturday night, but he will swim the semifinals of the 100 butterfly after his showdown with Lochte.
Is it possible that conventional thinking is wrong? Could this actually be an advantage for Lochte?
"It can be. It definitely can be," Peirsol said. "If you eliminate the factor of fatigue, which someone like Ryan trains well enough that they should be prepared for this, yeah. It very well could be an advantage."
After Wednesday's final in the 200 free, Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, expressed concern over the "cat and mouse" game the two rivals play in the water. Rather than racing the clock, they race each other. The final result is a thrilling finish, but often far from an inspiring overall performance. Lochte's coach, Gregg Troy, downplayed the issue Thursday.
"It happens once in a while," he said. "It doesn't concern me. It's still a race."
And so everything will come down to this, at least until London. One of them will win, one of them will lose, and then everyone will begin to predict what will happen in 29 days when Lochte and Phelps race again in the same water, this time at the London Aquatics Center.
For now, bragging rights for the next month are at stake. When told Friday that it was Phelps' birthday Saturday, Lochte smiled and shrugged in his carefree way.
"Well, all right," he said, nodding his head.
When asked what he might get his friend and rival for a gift, Lochte hardly suggested a victory in the 200 IM. In fact, he didn't say anything.
"I don't know," Lochte said. "I guess I'll have to think about it tonight."