OMAHA, Neb. — The pressure was off. The victory was his. Ryan Lochte spotted his family and embraced his mother, who wiped a few tears away so she could crack a joke.
“Thank God you made it,” Ileana Lochte told the first swimmer to make the U.S. Olympic team, “so we’re not going to London by ourselves.”
That is no laughing matter to NBC, which plans to hype “Ryan Lochte vs. Michael Phelps: The Showdown” in as many showdowns as possible. Lochte and Phelps complied Monday, finishing 1-2 in the men’s 400-meter individual medley and setting up a London rematch for the gold medal.
Phelps won a record eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics.
Lochte and Phelps have raced each other for close to a decade, but never before had Lochte beaten Phelps in this event.
There was a live symphony orchestra playing the national anthem, and there were larger-than-life cutouts of Lochte’s face waved by dozens of his fans. There was flair, not only in the arena but on Lochte’s red, white and blue on his shoes -- blue and white stars on his right shoe, red and white stripes on his left shoe, with high tops that resembled wings.
“They gave me wings,” Lochte said.
There was fire too. Flames shot up from the pool deck during the race, a special effect that momentarily startled some of the swimmers and coaches. And, ultimately, there was a race in which Lochte and Phelps left their competition way behind but left the promise of faster times.
Tyler Clary led at the halfway point of the race, bursting out front on the strength of his backstroke. But, on the subsequent breaststroke leg, Clary was passed by Lochte and then by Phelps, with Lochte finishing in 4 minutes 7.06 seconds, Phelps in 4:07.89 and Clary in 4:09.92.
Said Jon Urbanchek, the coach for Clary: “He overswam the first 200 meters. He knew his weakness was the breaststroke. It caught up to him on the last 50.
“He was not able to stay with Michael. Either you go for it, or you go with the flow. I give him credit. He went for it.”
Phelps once vowed he would not swim this event here. He did not announce that he would until Sunday, and he acknowledged the sting of defeat in the event earlier this month weighed upon him.
“I was pretty upset,” he said. “I didn’t want that be to be my last IM.”
If Phelps wins the event in London, he would become the first male swimmer to win gold in the same event in three consecutive Olympics. No swimmer in the world this year has finished within two seconds of the times Lochte and Phelps posted Monday, and yet each camp promises faster times ahead.
Said Gregg Troy, the coach for Lochte: “We’re actually a little displeased with the time. We think there’s a little more left there.”
Said Bob Bowman, the coach for Phelps: “His turns were horrendous. That’s two seconds there. His breaststroke has got to get better.”
Lochte might have given Phelps a whipping Monday, but Bowman scoffed at the notion that this was some sort of motivational rout.
“We didn’t get beat,” Bowman said, “by three seconds.”
Other than Clary, everyone else got beat by at least nine seconds.