Gonna take a sentimental journey
Gonna set my heart at ease
Gonna make a sentimental journey
To renew old memories
-- From the classic 1945 No. 1 hit song, “Sentimental Journey”
OMAHA, Neb. – They should have cleared everyone else out of the pool, leaving Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte in a match race, because that is what Friday night’s final of the 200-meter individual medley at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming turned out to be.
No one expected anything else from the two men who have battled each other for global supremacy in the event over 13 years, creating the greatest rivalry in the history of their sport.
And the two 31-year-olds now have a chance to do it one more time at the 2016 Olympics next month in Rio.
“It isn’t over,” Lochte said. “We’ve still got another month to put everything together and really give the world a show.”
There never has been a longer-running hit in the sport.
For the fourth straight trials, Phelps and Lochte went 1-2 in the 200 IM. Phelps also has won the gold medal in the event at three straight Olympics, with Lochte getting silver, bronze, silver.
“We do race each other very well,” Phelps said. “We race each other to the last stroke. We go to the next level when we swim against each other.”
Phelps led after each of the 50-meter legs, but the difference between them at the turns never was greater than .19 seconds. With 25 meters to go Friday, the two seemed separated only by inches. Phelps pushed ahead in the final strokes to win by .31 seconds, less than one-fourth of a body length.
“I tried to over-kick the last 25,” Phelps said. “I did know how close it was.”
The third finisher, David Nolan, was nearly three seconds behind Lochte.
Phelps’ winning time, 1 minute, 55.91 seconds, made him the second-fastest at 200 IM in the world this year, behind Japan’s Kosuke Hagino (1:55.07). Lochte, who had been second, improved his season best by nearly half a second with a 1:56.22.
“I’m not real pleased with the time,” Phelps said. “I do have to swim faster to have a chance to win the gold medal.”
Lochte, the world record-holder (1:54), and Phelps (1:54.16) each swam the fastest 200 IM of his career in the final of the 2011 world championships.
In any other era but the one in which Phelps has become the greatest swimmer of all time, with Olympic records for gold (18) and total (22) medals, Lochte likely would have been the dominant personality in the sport. In the last three Olympics, he has won five gold, three silver and three bronze medals.
Yet he expresses no regret about having been overshadowed, knowing how much his career has been enhanced by the rivalry.
“Sometimes I think I wouldn’t be the swimmer that I am today if I didn’t have Michael,” Lochte said.
This has been a frustrating Olympic Trials for Lochte since the first day, when he pulled a groin muscle on the breaststroke leg of the heats of the 400 IM, the event in which he lost a chance to defend his Olympic title. He wound up third, then got a relay place with a fourth in the 200 freestyle, and he had not made the 2016 team in an individual event until Friday.
“After the 400 IM, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to finish the meet,” Lochte said.
The injury improved as long as Lochte didn’t have to swim breaststroke. That relief ended when the 200 IM began with two races Thursday.
“I’ve trained so long and so hard for so many years that I wasn’t going to give up because of my groin,” Lochte said.
Phelps had made his fifth Olympic team, a record for a U.S. man, by winning the 200 butterfly Wednesday. He has one more race here, the 100 butterfly final Saturday, having slogged to third in his 100 butterfly semifinal just 26 minutes after the 200 IM ended.
It took Phelps a long time after the butterfly race to get his lactic acid levels below the desired number. He was trying to figure out why his legs felt so relatively lifeless for the first time at a meet in which his training was tapered to be fresh.
“Tonight was brutal,” he said. “The 200 IM hurt. The 100 fly hurt. I haven’t had any doubles that close in a really long time.”
The only ones left will be at the Olympics, presuming he finishes in the top two of the 100 butterfly final. Having retired and unretired after the 2012 Olympics, Phelps insists he is leaving competitive swimming for good after his last race in Rio.
Lochte would not rule out the possibility of trying for another Olympics. But he realizes it is time to appreciate what the rivalry with Phelps has meant not only to both of them but to the sport.
“When we touched the wall, and I saw that I got second, I wasn’t really thinking about that,” Lochte said. “I was kinda looking at him and being like, ‘Wow, our journey is coming to an end.’ It was really sentimental. It’s definitely something I’m going to take to heart.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered 17 Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.