Of the 26 events contested during the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, few, if any, carried more anticipation than the final domestic showdown between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
As the friendly rivals strode onto the pool deck for the 200-meter individual medley Friday night, fans buzzed in the sold-out CenturyLink Center. Everyone stood in the sections reserved for athletes and coaches. They all wanted to see this race.
Breathless language filled a digital flier USA Swimming distributed to promote the race: “Titans collide in the pool.”
And like so many previous meetings between two of the most dominant male swimmers in U.S. history, Phelps touched the wall first.
“When we race each other, we bring each other to a different level,” said Phelps, who finished in 1 minute 55.91 seconds to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in his second individual event. “We take each other to that next step.”
Lochte, who set the world record in the event in 2011, finished second in 1:56.22.
“We push each other,” he said. “That challenge of getting on the blocks and racing against him is a thrill so I’m definitely looking forward to doing that again [in Rio].”
Their days in the pool are growing shorter. Phelps is done with competitive swimming after the Rio games, completing his comeback from a brief retirement following the London Olympics. Lochte’s plans aren’t as clear, but a strained groin has turned these trials into a painful test of mind over the searing reality with every kick in the breaststroke. At one point, Lochte thought he’d have to pull out of the meet.
Instead, he followed Phelps from the ready room onto the pool deck Friday and, in a new twist to their duels, stepped on the back of his rival’s foot.
“I accidentally gave him a flat tire,” Lochte said. “He was like, ‘Are you trying to mess me up before the race?’ And I was like, ‘No, no, I was just joking.’
“That goofiness, that smiling that we have before the race … it’s all fun and games. But when we step on those blocks, we’re racers.”
Lochte cut Phelps’ lead to less than a tenth of a second after the second leg -- the backstroke -- but Phelps extended his narrow advantage during the breaststroke. As they churned toward the wall on the final leg, they looked, for a moment, as if they were swimming side by side.
If the injury hampered Lochte, who hadn’t qualified for Rio in an individual event at the trials until the second-place finish, he didn’t show it.
“I mean, I could have a broken leg and I would still go on the blocks and race,” Lochte said.
They shook hands at the wall -- this is a rivalry built on mutual respect, not trash-talking or enmity -- then looked up at the times on a huge video screen. The result wasn’t unusual. At the trials, Phelps has won the event four consecutive times with Lochte the runner-up in each race.
“I think we’ve both just grown up,” Phelps said. “I think we’re both just loving life and loving what we’re doing.”
The dominance extends further. Phelps has won the 200 IM at each of the last three Olympics. Lochte, on the other hand, settled for two silvers and a bronze in the race during the same time.
Among the three other finals Friday, Santa Clarita sprinter Abbey Weitzeil hung on during the final stretch to capture the 100-meter freestyle. Weitzeil finished in 53.28 seconds -- her personal best in the event -- while Simone Manuel touched the wall less than three-tenths of a second later. Both swimmers are 19.
“I knew I was going to have to put my head down and fight it out,” said Weitzeil, who deferred enrolling at California until this fall in order to train for the trials and Olympics.
She is the 10th first-time Olympian to win an event at these trials.
After winning the 100 breaststroke earlier in the week, Lilly King, another newcomer, took the 200 breaststroke Friday. One more first-time Olympian, Ryan Murphy, added a win in the 200 backstroke to go along with his previous victory in the 100 backstroke.
Riverside’s Tyler Clary, the defending Olympic champion in the 200 backstroke, placed third. He didn’t qualify for Rio in any events and plans to retire.
About an hour after Phelps and Lochte raced, they paused next to the pool deck and Phelps addressed the crowed on a mic.
“I don’t know if there’s another person in the world,” he said, “who I race who brings out the best in me like he does.”
“We’ve had a long history, a long journey,” Lochte told the crowd. “But it’s not over.”
Then Phelps grabbed his rival’s hand and thrust it high in the air.