In the end, the story SO HUGE IT HAD JOURNALISTS SCRAMBLING FOR THE CAPSLOCK BUTTON didn't end up dominating these Games. With two days remaining in the Olympic swimming program, and Lochte having swum his last race here, the Yannick Agnels and Chad le Closes and Allison Schmitts of the world have been, if anything, more engrossing than the two men who seemingly bestrode the Aquatics Centre.
But they sure did go out with a bang.
For once, everything went according to script, and Messrs. Phelps and Lochte actually had a race, and it was close, and one of them won. In the process, Phelps became the first male swimmer to win the same race in the Olympics three times in a row. (Because he didn't have enough records already.)
So after Thursday's 200-meter individual medley, the scores stand:
- Michael Phelps: 1 (200 IM)
- Ryan Lochte: 1 (400 IM)
- Swimmers not named Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte: 2 (200 fly, 200 back)
Thursday's race gave some sense of why we in the media were more excited than un-house-trained puppies before the Olympics began. There was Phelps, and there was Lochte beside him, and every stroke was a haymaker meant to knockout the other.
Lochte was being a beast, swimming in the 200 IM just 20 minutes after he swam in the 200-meter backstroke. And Phelps had his Beijing game going, even as he managed to keep his London face firmly in place, just so darn pleased about everything.
Apparently, he had his London face on before the swim, too, chatting up Lochte. "I said to him in the meet room, 'This is our last 200 of the meet and our last 200 together.' We were just joking around, laughing about it."
And that's the thing. Lochte popped out of the pool and was just peachy, too. Yes, he'd just been beaten twice – by Phelps in the 200 IM and by American Tyler Clary in the 200 back (where he finished third). But he wasn't about to go throw himself in the Thames.
Quite the opposite. He'd enjoyed the challenge, and if he had to do it all over again, he'd swim just as many races – even if that costs him a gold here or there.
"I'm not going to change that," he said. "I love to swim, that's why I do it."
And that's when it hits you. These guys just love racing. Sure, they love winning. But they love the competition more – the feeling of going out there against the best swimmers in the world and letting it all hang out. If they had to do it in front of a local bridge club at the Y, they probably would. In fact, that sort of is what they do for three out of every four years.
Earlier in the night, American Rebecca Soni swam the 200-meter breaststroke, not against any person, but against a number she's been hunting for years: 2 minutes, 20 seconds. From the time she was a junior swimmer, she wanted to be the first woman to break it. On Thursday, she did it – by 0.01 seconds.
"The last few years, I've been chasing this, and I just can't believe that it's happened," she said. "That was my career on the line right there."
And Mr. Clary had had visions about what the perfect 200-meter backstroke would look like. Turns out, he was completely wrong.
"I had a couple of different ways I had foreseen the race playing out with regard to everyone else in the heat, but the way things were in the first 100 [meters of the race], it was going to be really tough to come back and get my hand on the wall."
But he did it, too, winning gold ahead of the likes of Lochte. "That was the perfect race I swam tonight, it couldn't have gone any better."
So Lochte finished London with five medals (two gold, two silver, one bronze) for 11 in his career. Phelps, who still has two races left, has four (two gold, two silver) in London for 20 overall.
"Ryan has probably been one of the toughest competitors to swim against," Phelps said.
"I'm glad he said that, it's a great rivalry," Lochte responded.
On Thursday, it certainly was.