On the night that closed the book on their rivalry, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte slipped into old roles and seemed to switch personalities as if under some sorcerer’s spell. Lochte, who had taken to describing himself as “happy-go-Lochte” and whose response to any question in the lead-up to the Olympics about mushrooming expectations was, “It’s just swimming,” was the pinched-faced man of few words.
Lochte, who came into these Games with the goal of winning medals in all seven of his events, faded on the final laps of his last four races while trying to simulate the program that carried Phelps’s 16-medal performance at the 2004 and 2008 Games. Lochte concluded his program on Thursday night with his best two events, the 200-meter backstroke and the 200 individual medley, and looked tapped out while losing both.
In the 200-meter backstroke, Lochte, the defending champion, was beaten to the wall by his American teammate Tyler Clary, who was timed in 1:53.41. (Lochte equaled his gold medal winning time of four years ago with a 1:53.94.) Twenty-seven minutes later, Lochte stepped on to the blocks to race Phelps in the 200 individual medley in the duel that wasn’t. Phelps, a four-time Olympian, raced to a wire-to-wire victory for his 16th gold medal, becoming the first man to win a swimming event at three consecutive Games and the only Olympian with 20 career medals.
“To be the first to three-peat is something pretty special to me,” Phelps said, adding, “It’s cool to add it to the résumé.”
A little over 30 minutes later, he returned to the water and qualified first for the final of the 100 butterfly, an event in which Phelps is the two-time defending champion. It was his final semifinal swim, and strangely, as the clock winds down on his career, he appears to be speeding up.
His winning time in the 200 individual medley of 1:54.27 and his 50.86 clocking in the 100 butterfly called to mind the Phelps of old, not the old Phelps who finished fourth in the 400 individual medley Saturday and endured his first major international defeat in a decade in the 200 butterfly four days later.
Bob Bowman, Phelps’s longtime coach, suggested that his poor start to the meet might have paved the way for his inspired finish. “I don’t know, maybe we were a little uptight,” he said. “Once we started with that clunker in the I.M., we thought we might as well have some fun.”
Before the Games, Phelps said his goal was to enjoy himself and soak up the scene. While Phelps’s competitive swan song has been a mixed bag, the disappointments in the 400 individual medley and the 200 butterfly offset by two strong relay legs and his Thursday swims, he can say, unequivocally, that he has never enjoyed himself more at an Olympics.
On Wednesday, the day after Phelps won his 18th and 19th medals to become the most decorated Olympian, he was traveling to the swim stadium for the evening session when his cellphone rang. “I answered the phone,” Phelps said, “and they were like, ‘Michael?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ They said, ‘Please hold for the president of the United States.’ I was like, ‘O.K.’ ”
Phelps, smiling broadly as he spoke, said President Obama told him he had made the country proud and that he had the support of everybody back home. “He finished by saying, ‘Make sure you tell your mom I said hi,’ ” Phelps said. “It was a pretty good call.”
He was magnanimous toward Lochte, whose dead eyes betrayed his fatigue. “I may have been lucky that Ryan had a 200 back 30 minutes before the I.M.,” Phelps said, adding: “Ryan has probably been one of the best all-around competitors ever. He has brought the best out of me many times.”
When Phelps’s words were relayed to Lochte, he was momentarily lost for words.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’m glad he said that. By all means, he is the toughest competitor I’ve faced.”
And in Phelps’s day, he has faced a few formidable foes: Tom Malchow, Tom Dolan, Ian Crocker, Ian Thorpe, Pieter Van Den Hoogenband and Milorad Cavic, whom he will square off against one final time Friday night in the 100 butterfly final. After that, only the 4×100 medley relay will stand between Phelps and the rest of his life.
“I think once it’s all over, it’s going to really hit me emotionally,” he said.
Phelps’s impact on the sport can be seen in his medal total, certainly, but also in Lochte’s ambitious program and in the seven-event program of their teammate Missy Franklin. Nobody believed it was possible to swim an eight-event program against the best competition in the world until Phelps made it look easy, winning six golds and two bronzes in Athens in 2004 and a record eight golds in Beijing in 2008.
Mark Spitz, the man whose single Games record for excellence Phelps surpassed, has become relevant again, thanks to Lochte, whose failed bid for supremacy was reminiscent of Spitz’s letdown in 1968, when he predicted many golds and left with two golds, a silver and a bronze.
“I definitely wanted to get golds in everything, but I can’t be disappointed,” Lochte said. “I’m bringing home five Olympic medals.”
Lochte, who earned two golds, two silvers and a bronze, has 11 career medals, which ranks him second among American male Olympians behind Phelps. His ups-and-downs here framed Phelps’s eight-for-eight showing in Beijing in a more glowing light.
“Anyone who didn’t realize what Michael Phelps did in Beijing wasn’t paying attention,” said Lochte’s coach, Gregg Troy. “It’s very unique when things come together like that, as we’re seeing this week. It was a fantastic achievement.”
Unlike the 27-year-old Phelps, Lochte, who turns 28 on Friday, intends to continue swimming through the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, but with a caveat.
“I can tell you this,” he said. “I’m definitely going to be training differently. All those brutal workouts I’ve put myself through — you know what? I’m getting older. I’ve got a birthday tomorrow. It’s time to change my training, take it down a notch.”
Phelps can relate. He and Lochte appeared with the 200 I.M. bronze medalist, Laszlo Cseh, for a news conference. After fielding one question, Cseh left.
Soon Lochte also rose to make his exit and Phelps, in mock anger, said: “He’s done? I’ve got two more races. I’m the one who has to go.”