OMAHA - The Greeks, who gave us the Olympics, knew a thing or two about heroes. They're great when they're unbeatable, like Michael Phelps in Beijing, but also great when proven mortal, like Phelps on Monday night.
Ryan Lochte, the man Phelps used to leave in his wake, won the 400-meter individual medley at the Olympic swim trials, though Phelps finished second and qualified for the U.S. team. That means the 400 IM that matters, the one for Mount Olympus, will pit Lochte and Phelps versus each other, and the world, in London next month.
"Whenever I go on the blocks, I always feel I can win," Lochte said. "So I knew I was capable of doing it and it happened. But that race is over. I'm not even thinking about that race anymore. I got so many more races left in this meet."
This was the first of what could be up to five more showdowns between Lochte and Phelps here: 100 and 200 freestyle, 200 backstroke, 200 IM and 100 butterfly.
"The first race is always the hardest," Lochte said. "I can take a deep breath now, relax, and whatever happens, happens."
Lochte won the punishing 400 IM in 4:07.06, fastest time in the world this year. Phelps was second in 4:07.89 and Tyler Clary, the forgotten man who led midrace, was third in 4:09.92.
"The excitement from the crowd we were all side by side by side and we were all neck and neck, and I was saying to Ryan (afterward) that you could see the flames going off and you could hear the excitement in the crowd," Phelps said, "and I think that (gave) me a little bit of extra energy that last 150. I was very pleased with that. I said if I went 4:07, I'd be happy."
Lochte, on the other hand, said he was not happy with his. "That time was not good," he said. "I feel like I'm capable of going way faster and I know I can. There were definitely a lot of places during that race where I knew I could go faster, I just didn't. I just had to do what I had to do to get my hand on the wall first."
Lochte said he was on the pool deck after his victory when he heard his mom: "And I said, 'Oh, where is she?' Then I saw her and she was balling her eyes out. She's definitely not afraid to show her emotions. And she said, 'Thank God you made it, so we aren't going to London by ourselves.' "
Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, said his swimmer's time was where he expected it to be. "He needed to have a race that he could swim at that level and know where he is," Bowman said.
Bowman was asked what he thought of Lochte and the type of competition he offers. "Obviously great competition," Bowman said, "he just kicked our ass."
Phelps said after Beijing he wouldn't compete in the grueling 400 IM anymore but changed his mind and has been ramping up for it in London. Bowman said he is glad of that: "This is the catalyst for everything else. How this goes, everything else goes."
Lochte came in as the defending world champion and Phelps as the world record holder and defending Olympic champ. Phelps kept alive his chances to win the Olympic title for an unprecedented third consecutive time in London. If he can do that, Monday night in Omaha would become mere footnote.