It was expected to be closer than this — but in their fourth race in the men’s 200-meter individual medley, Michael Phelps took gold, as usual, and Ryan Lochte faded out of medal contention in the Summer Olympics in Rio.
Hours after their U.S. teammates Simone Biles and Aly Raisman went head-to-head to decide who should take a gold medal home, the two most talented swimmers of their generation stepped up on the blocks to race one last time in the Olympics.
And like those American gymnasts, it seemed possible that these Americans might also finish 1-2. But it wasn’t to be: While Phelps grabbed an early edge that he built into a commanding lead on the final leg, Lochte couldn’t get past either Kosuke Hagino of Japan, who took silver, or Wang Shun of China, who won bronze.
After it was over, Phelps took deep breaths and held out his hand, wriggling four fingers. He then leaned across the lane line to embrace Lochte.
If you need proof of close this race was expected to be, consider that Lochte owns the world record in the event at 1:54, while Phelps set the Olympic record, at 1:54.23.
Lochte came in fifth, with a time of 1:57.47. While Hagino seemed to be the strongest swimmer coming to the wall, third place seemed much closer.
This was a fast race — Phelps clocked it at 1:54.66, less than a second off the world record — and it took place in front of a boisterous and enthusiastic crowd. While American fans were cheering Phelps or Lochte, the host Brazilian fans were roaring for one of their own, in Thiago Pereira.
Pereira gave them a show, hanging with Phelps and Lochte early, prompting the crowd to chant “Brazil!” with every stroke. But he faded late to finish seventh.
Ten minutes before the race began, Phelps, 31, and Lochte, 32, could be seen in the waiting area as a medal ceremony was performed at poolside for an earlier race.
Seen from a high angle that suggested they might not realize they were being filmed, Phelps and Lochte laughed and talked, as alone in the waiting area as they are alone in the record books of American swimming: during these Rio Games, after all, Lochte has become the second-most-decorated male Olympic swimmer of all time – second only to Phelps.
The win brought Phelps his 22nd gold medal, and his 26th over all. During the medal ceremony that followed, Phelps showed more of the emotion that we saw from him after he won his 25th medal, two days ago. He took a deep breath as his eyes welled up, and listened to his country’s national anthem.
After the anthem was over, Phelps — who after all, is the most senior veteran of medal ceremonies — orchestrated the photo op with Shun and Hagino, gesturing them to step up on the top podium with him.
Then the most decorated Olympian of all time went on the victory walk with his fellow swimmers — before he had to get ready for his next race, a qualifying heat in the 100-meter butterfly.
Phelps lit up many social media feeds earlier in these games, after he gave a death-stare to rival Chad le Clos before a race. But he and Lochte are known to be friends, and their roommate in Rio, Conor Dwyer said yesterday that from the way Phelps and Lochte act around each other, he would never guess that these roomies are also perennially vying for swimming glory.
The race in Rio extended an Olympic rivalry that began back in 2004, at the Athens Summer Games – a period in which Phelps has won the gold in every Olympics, relegating Lochte and a host of other talented male swimmers to also-rans in this event.