Lochte continues his rise, tops Phelps in 200 freestyle
By Vicki Michaelis, USA TODAY Updated
SHANGHAI — Ryan Lochte was talking about his transition from long curls to cropped hair, but he could have been talking about his win over Michael Phelps in the 200-meter freestyle at the world championships Tuesday.
"I guess it's a new year, new look," he said.
The USA's Rebecca Soni also won Tuesday, defending her world title in the 100-meter breaststroke. Natalie Coughlin added a bronze in the 100-meter backstroke, and Kate Ziegler won silver in the 1500-meter freestyle, a non-Olympic event.
The sight of Lochte on the top step of the 200 free podium, with Phelps in silver-medal position, raised the possibility that a changing of the guard could be taking place in swimming. Or it could be just a momentary shift in one of the sport's best rivalries.
Although the victory was Lochte's first against Phelps in a worlds or Olympics, coming in a race Lochte doesn't often enter, even Lochte wasn't overly exuberant, calling it "a good swim."
He knows the win came not against the Phelps of 2008, who won a historic eight golds at the Beijing Olympics, but rather against a Phelps that has been focused in training only in recent months.
"That's all I had in the tank," Phelps said. "I would have loved to win, but this is something that's going to help me a lot for the next year."
Next year, the Olympics will come around again. And perhaps so will Phelps. His time Tuesday — one minute, 44.79 seconds to Lochte's 1:44.44 — seemed to be a signal to both Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, that Phelps could again do something special in the Olympic lanes.
"Everything about it made me happy," Bowman said. "It would be nice if he was a couple tenths (of a second) faster, but he had a good strategy. I thought his stroke was pretty good, he showed real improvement from, really, anything he's done in the last couple years."
Phelps and Lochte, good friends who were head bobbing to the music emanating from Phelps' iPod as they waited in the ready room before Tuesday's race, likely will meet again at worlds, in Thursday's 200-meter individual medley final.
"No matter what happens, we're definitely going to be pushing each other for 2012," Lochte said.
Phelps' loss to Lochte on Tuesday wasn't nearly as shocking as his 200 free defeat at the 2009 worlds to German Paul Biedermann, a virtual unknown at the time who also set a surreal world record of 1:42.00 in the race. Biedermann was wearing one of the full-body polyurethane suits, now banned, that led to a cascade of world records at the last world championships.
Biedermann finished third in Tuesday's race.
"In '09, I was still trying to ride what had happened in '08," Phelps said, "even though I had taken six months off. Now I know that doing that is not the best thing for swimming."
Phelps has lost three times this season in an event he once owned, the 200-meter butterfly (he swims in the 200 fly final here Wednesday). At last year's Pan Pacific championships, where Lochte won four individual gold medals and six overall, Phelps failed to qualify for the 400-meter individual medley and withdrew from the 200 IM to conserve energy for other races.
"The reason why I haven't been able to swim as fast as I've wanted to over the last couple years — it's all my fault," Phelps said.
Lochte hasn't let up since winning the 200-meter backstroke, a relay gold and two bronze medals — both in races that Phelps won — at the 2008 Olympics. He changed to a more nutritious diet and took up Strongman-like training. In addition to his dominant showing at the Pan Pacs last year, he became the only swimmer to break a world record in the post-rubberized suit era, at the short-course world championships (held in a 25-meter pool).
"I'm definitely a completely different swimmer than what I was in 2008. I'm a lot stronger, I'm a lot smarter just going into my races," Lochte said.
On Tuesday, swimming in a lane adjacent to Phelps, he stayed with Phelps through a fast start. Then, at the 100-meter turn, Lochte did a very Phelps-ian thing, kicking hard off the wall to gain more distance underwater. He popped up ahead of Phelps and didn't relinquish the lead.
"He knew exactly what he needed to do to win," Bowman said.
Now Bowman and Phelps know more about what Phelps needs to do to win again as well.
"I think I know where I can get, and I think I know what it takes to get back there," Phelps said. "I know for sure I can go faster than that. That's not even a question."