The world's second-best swimmer sure wore that poker face Monday night. His coach did not.
Phelps lost in his signature event — the 400-meter individual medley — to his new rival, Ryan Lochte. At race's end, Phelps clung to the plastic lane marker and gasped. This is what an 18-month layoff from the 400 IM looks like.
But then he climbed out, smiled for the NBC cameras, lumbered down some steps and pitched the equivalent of a two-hit shutout to the media. He talked for all of two minutes. He walked right past the local TV outlets. And since he didn't win the race, no post-swim press conference.
“I'm happy to get that first monkey off my back and those first-race jitters out,” he said, punctuating each answer with a half-grin that, with Phelps, could mean anything. He liked the mid-race flames shooting poolside, at any rate. And the crowd. Schoolboy sentiments.
Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, had a different assessment: “(Lochte) just kicked our ass.”
And not just in the pool. Lochte got the bigger pre-race cheer. Lochte had the signs in the crowd. Lochte was throwing roses, hugging his bawling mom, high-fiving kids, and posing for cellphone pictures.
“You wanna see the shoes?” he said to the media, putting his winged stars-and-stripes shoes up on a black railing. “They gave me wings!”
Somewhere in the caverns of the CenturyLink Center, Phelps and Bowman must have stewed. Their story's taken a slight turn. For swim fans, it's a good turn — even if Phelps is slower.
Adversity. Conflict. Intrigue. Phelps and Bowman's North Baltimore Aquatic Club vs. the University of Florida, where Lochte trains with coach Gregg Troy. Where two more Monday night winners — Peter Vanderkaay and Elizabeth Beisel — train as well.
This week will not be Phelps' coronation. It just could be his reckoning for three years of ambivalence to his craft. He's in the midst of a real rivalry, behind on points, and the rhinestone cowboy over there with his glittery backpack has plenty of punches still to throw.
Now we'll see what's in Phelps' “bank,” as Bowman calls it. How much is in it?
“I have absolutely no idea,” Bowman said dramatically, as he often does. “That'll be our question for tomorrow night.” Phelps will swim the 200-meter freestyle preliminaries and semifinals. So will Lochte.
And we'll see if Phelps turned on his pilot light in time to make a splash in Omaha. We'll look for more proof. Is Lochte just becoming that good? Is Phelps a fraction less of what he used to be? We'll see if, with fewer world records to set, he can grind out wins.
Phelps' strategy Monday night was to push hard in the opening 200 meters to match Lochte's strong start, then presumably win a freestyle race at the end. But his butterfly leg — Phelps was seemingly born to swim this stroke — didn't create much distance between him and Lochte. And his breaststroke resembled a bobber in water. Too much effort, not enough reward. Lochte, his stroke smooth and confident, elegantly breezed past him.
Phelps made up some ground on the final freestyle leg, but Lochte eased up to save energy. Lochte said after the race his time was slow. Phelps, conversely, was “very pleased” with holding off Tyler Clary — who spent himself in the first 200 meters.
Lochte, hungry for more. Phelps, just happy to be in the hunt. The script's seemingly flipped. Maybe that poker face is Phelps waiting in the weeds for Lochte to tire over the course of the week. Maybe Phelps is in the midst of a decline. Waffling for months on the 400 IM probably didn't help. He played mustache games until Sunday night for an event he dominated for roughly eight years.
Why did he swim it?
“This is an event I've done for a long time, and I'm happy to finish my career with,” he said.
Phelps, talking about the end again. Well, fine. He's earned the right to perspective.
But it could be a bumpy sprint to the wall.
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