Lochte dampens Phelps comeback at USA Swimming Grand Prix in Mesa, Arizona
Michael Phelps' second race since coming out of retirement was against a familiar rival, Ryan Lochte. Although Phelps was the top qualifier in the morning prelims, Lochte, representing his new team SwimMac, got the better of the world's greatest swimmer in the championship final of the 100m fly at the ARENA Grand Prix. Lochte, an 11-time Olympic medallist, touched in 51.93, the second fastest time of the year behind Takuro Fujii's 51.84 set at the Japanese Nationals in Tokyo. Phelps was out in 24.76 at the 50m mark but Lochte turned more than a tenth faster at 24.64 and had more in reserve for his finish.
Phelps' time of 52.13 signaled that his short training has paid dividends, tonight's time tying his with Germany's Steffen Deibler for the fifth fastest time of the year. Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all-time with 22 career medals was competing for the first time since winning the last of his six medals at the 2012 Olympic Games in London – a span of 628 days. Kenya’s Jason Dunford was third in 53.08.
Phelps was the fastest qualifier in the morning heats, posting a time of 52.84. Lochte delivered the second seeded time of the morning prelims setting up the first clash of the two titans since they last raced in the London Olympic Games. Phelps achieved a qualifying time for this summer's USA National Championships and the opportunity to compete for a spot on the 2014 Pan Pacific and 2015 FINA World Championship teams. These two events are a stepping stones for athletes hoping to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.
Lochte never doubted that Phelps would return to the sport. Despite Phelps' insistence that the sport of golf would be his next challenge, Lochte predicted that Phelps would be back. Just months after Phelps declared that his races in the 2012 London Olympics would be his last, Lochte insisted "the sport will miss him. Michael is one of my favorite rivals, and I will miss him." Lochte was spot on when he insisted "I think he will come back. When you do something for so long every day, and he's still young. I think he will be back for Rio. We'll see. He'll miss the sport.'' Lochte will turn 30 on August 3rd. Phelps is 11 months younger.
The swimming world was energised when the rumors of a possible comeback proved to be true. Earlier this year the 28-year-old Olympian had returned to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club pool, reuniting with Coach Bob Bowman. Phelps has been training with a host of Olympic stars including Yannick Agnel of France, Lotte Friis of Denmark and Americans Allison Schmitt and Conor Dwyer.
"We have discussed a long-term plan in general terms, but until he swims in a meet, we're not going to know," longtime coach Bowman said before the meet. "I think he certainly won't be embarrassed swimming in the meet, and I think he will be competitive. The difference is, he is doing half the training he used to." Bowman told the Associated Press , "I think he's just going to test the waters a little bit and see how it goes. I wouldn't say it's a full-fledged comeback."
Phelps race in the 100m butterfly in Arizona was in the same event in which he won at three consecutive Olympic gold medals. Phelps still holds the World and the American record of 49.82 set at the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome, Italy.
After the race Universal Sports commentator Rowdy Gaines asked Lochte and Phelps about all the hype surrounding tonight's finals. Lochte quipped: "Seeing all these cameras in my face this morning, I wanted to say 'Thanks Michael' drawing laughs from the sold out crowd that had come to see Phelps race at the ARENA Grand Prix.
Phelps swimming the 100m fly - credit: Melissa Lundie
With Phelps standing just inches away Lochte said: "I peeked over at Michael at the turn and almost starting smiling." Phelps retorted "Why, because you were ahead! Was it because you were winning?" The two Olympians laughed, happy to continue the friendly rivalry that Lochte always believed would resume when Phelps returned to the pool.
"I am my hardest critic and I know what I can do there." said Phelps who competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games as a 15 year old. " I am having fun and I really do mean that. It's great to be swimming in front of packed stands and cheering us on and helping get us through this race. It's always fun swimming against Ryan. Neither of us wants to lose to the other and that's what makes us swim faster."
Phelps and Lochte raced against each other in the 100m butterfly at the 2012 US Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska. Phelps's insisted that race was his last swim on American soil. He won in a time of 51.14, a little more than half a second faster than Lochte who finished third and did not qualify for the US Olympic team in that event.
In London Lochte won his second individual gold medal in the 400m individual medley in a head-to-head competition with world record holder Phelps. Phelps finished off the podium in fourth place. Their last head-to-head race was in London when Phelps beat his rival in the 200m individual medley making Phelps the first man to win an individual swimming event at three consecutive Games. A day later Phelps would claim the three-peat in a second event, the 100m butterfly.
At his post race press conference Phelps confirmed that when swimming against Lochte, "we bring the best out of each other. It's a fun rivalry, we always have fun racing each other and we keep it very light. It was cool to hear the people in the stands go crazy when I was stepping up on the block this morning and it was the same tonight."
Reflecting on his first day back in the sport, "I have said this my whole career and I will continue to say that swimming has given me so much. I don't think I can give back enough for all that it has given me. This has been an amazing journey and I hope it continues."
In his Olympic career, Phelps has won 18 Olympic gold medals, 2 silver and 2 bronze. His gold and overall tally of Olympic medals are the greatest medal haul for any Olympian in any sport. Phelps also holds the Olympic records in five individual and three relay events, in each of the eight events he won during his sweep at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Lochte & Phelps at the 14th FINA World Championships, Shanghai 2011 - credit: deepbluemedia.photoshelter.com