Sports

Phelps can't catch Lochte but does officially qualify for London Olympic Games

Michael PhelpsBeijing GamesRyan Lochte

Michael Phelpsfinished second in the 400-meter individual medley to arch-rival Ryan Lochte in the opening act of the Olympic swimming trials here Monday, but both qualified for the London Games, setting the stage for another duel over their sport's most challenging event.

After a race that began with the Baltimore swimmer, Lochte and Tyler Clary grabbing the lead from one another, Lochte pulled away halfway through and stormed to a 4-minute, 7.06-second finish. Phelps pulled in .83 seconds later.

"This is an event I've done for a long time and something I'm happy to finish my career with," Phelps said. "Coming off of this, I've very pleased. … I'm happy to sort of get that first monkey off my back for the first event and kind of get those first race jitters out."

Phelps had created a bit of drama over whether he would swim the event, and Clary had even said this weekend he would be surprised if he did.

"It was a little painful," Phelps said afterward of the race he loves to hate for its punishing demands. Still, he professed himself glad to have plunged back into the race, saying he didn't want his loss in it during an invitational meet in Austin, Texas, earlier this month to be his final 400 IM.

Phelps' teammate at North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Chase Kalisz, 18, was a surprise racer in the finals, coming in third after the morning preliminaries as he swam in the lane next to the more famous swimmer. The Fallston resident, whose father Mike is athletic director at Hereford High School, finished the finals sixth, with a 4:16.32 time.

"I saw Chase," Phelps said after their morning heat, "and I knew I couldn't let him be anywhere close."

Lochte said he, too, was glad to have gotten the first of his races done.

"The first race is always the hardest," the Floridian said. "I can take a deep breath now and relax. Whatever happens, happens. I'm just going to have fun now."

Not likely, even if he doesn't swim all 11 events he registered for, several of which will likely feature Phelps as well.

Lochte, 27, is highly motivated to make the Summer Games that begin just over a month from now his own. Having spent much of his career in the 26-year-old Phelps' long shadow, he is riding on several victories over him in recent years.

The 400 IM launched the trials with a bang, literally, with flames shooting from the pool deck during a highly-produced opening ceremony. The CenturyLink Center darkened as if for a heavyweight prize fight, which in a sense it was. Lights lit up the pool, turning the water electric blue and the lane lines magenta as sensory overload ensued: LED panels flashed red-white-and-blue, a "water wall" streamed Olympic rings, pounding rock music whipped up a near full house.

"You could hear the excitement in the crowd," Phelps said after his race.

With the medley starting with his signature stroke, the butterfly, Phelps took the lead in the first 100 meters, giving it up to Clary during the second, backstroke leg. After that, though, Lochte powered through the breaststroke and freestyle portions to the finish.

Afterward, Lochte and Phelps, who are friends and hotel-room cards partners during meets, joked in passing about the false alarm at the Hilton Hotel that roused swimmers from afternoon naps.

In the pool, though, neither will take it easy on the other. Phelps, training for his fourth and final Olympics, seems working toward a big finish. While he has said he won't duplicate his eight-for-eight gold-medal performance in the Beijing Games four years ago, he has indicated he'll enter six or seven events.

Many of the big records are already on his side of the ledger — for example, most Olympic gold medals and most world records. But as he has maintained, he still has goals he wants to accomplish, even if he refuses to specify them. Monday he became the first American male swimmer to qualify for four Olympics.

As he said this weekend, "I have always wanted to be the first person to do something."

The 400 IM looms as a way to do that: Phelps could become the first male swimmer to win gold in the same event in three consecutive Olympics.Japan'sKosuke Kitajima will arrive in London with two chances to do that, in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke. Depending on which races Phelps enters in London, he has multiple opportunities as well, but the 400 IM is first on the Olympic schedule.

(Two women, incidentally, have already accomplished the feat: 100-meter freestyler Dawn Fraser of Australia and 200-meter backstroker Krisztina Egerszegi of Hungary.)

For Phelps, the 400 IM is as punishing as it is iconic. He owns the world record, set in the Beijing Games, where he first made his now-reversed vow never to swim it again. Phelps said he and coach Bob Bowman had a deal that he would get to drop the race from his overstuffed portfolio if he set a record in it, but somehow, he repeatedly found himself on the starting blocks for it time after time since.

But, in the wake of his post-Beijing funk, when he skipped practices and would hop a plane to Vegas on a whim, he lost ground in the medley and other races. Lochte was more than happy to step into the breach, delivering what Phelps has called a "butt-whipping" in match-ups in recent years.

Reclaiming one of "his" races surely will motivate Phelps. As he said Monday night, his loss in the 400 IM in Austin figured into his decision to swim it again.

"After Austin, I was pretty upset," he said. "I didn't want that to be my last 400 IM."

And now, it won't be.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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