Michael Phelps likes it hot, too. Finally, and right on time, Phelps brought his version of heat, or whatever you call the fuel in his turbo engines.
There was a sign of life in lane five Wednesday night. The jets still work. And how. Phelps won the 200 freestyle on Wednesday night, and though he can roll out of bed and qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, it was how he won and who he beat that had the CenturyLink Center crowd on its collective feet.
The Olympic swimming god roared down the final 50 meters like he was shot out of a submarine. He touched the wall at 1:45.70, just before Lochte at 1:45.75.
It doesn't get much better than that, except it will. This Phelps-Lochte thing, circa 2012, is just starting.
Lochte, the man who would be king, chased the reigning king so hard that he ended up in front as they made their way to Omaha. After two races, in which Lochte kicked Phelps', um, fins, the obvious question was on everyone's mind:
Was the passing of the pool torch here? And how much did Phelps care about it?
Fair questions, because of the evidence. And because of the quotes.
From Phelps, after finishing second to Lochte in the 200 freestyle heat: “At this point right now, it's about getting spots on the team. The most important thing for me is to try and secure a spot.”
From USA teammate Brandon Hansen: “I think Ryan's really eager and I think Michael's just trying to get to the Olympics. The big lights aren't on Michael yet.”
Last Saturday, Phelps said this run to the Olympics was about “having fun” and seeing how big of a cherry he wanted to put on top of the sundae that is his brilliant career.
Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, added, “I don't think anything he could do or not do will change his legacy. He's the greatest Olympian of all time today; he will be after the summer.”
So if the legacy's set, no matter what, where's the incentive? Where's the fire in that flat belly?
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Phelps has his goals. He wouldn't say what they are, that's how he rolls. But swimming experts say the goals are clear: be the first to win a gold in the same event (400 IM) in three straight Olympics and win three more medals, for a career 19, the most of any Olympian in history. Apparently including Zeus.
That's not 19 golds. That's medals, period. So Phelps could win three bronze in London town next month and be the man. Again, where's the incentive to push the pedal?
Didn't Phelps take his foot off the gas in the 18 months after the 2008 Games? Didn't he lose those races to Lochte the past four years? Didn't it look like Lochte, the challenger, cared more?
Here in 2008, Omaha saw Phelps in his golden god prime, gliding and cutting through the water like no one ever before. We saw his eight-gold medal style here four years ago. This time around, would we see the aging gunslinger, on cruise control, just trying not to stumble on his way out the door?
We saw a little glimpse of the answer Wednesday night.
Phelps is wired different, not unlike other greats, like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. Push them into a corner, put the challenge in their face, and they respond. Like clockwork.
For Phelps, that challenge has arrived and swims in lane four.
The world's greatest swimmer might be behind schedule on his times or training. He might be playing catch-up to Lochte. Wednesday night he said technically he's not there yet.
But when the jets had to come on, they came on.
“Neither one of us likes to lose,” Phelps said of he and Lochte. “You never say never. Anything can happen any given day.”
Maybe he's always believed that, maybe Lochte's rise in the world pool order has brought that to Phelps' attention in a big way.
This is where it gets fun. For years, Phelps pushed himself, but he also pushed Lochte along the way. The Florida kid finally looked like he caught Phelps the past two years. Now, the gauntlet Lochte dropped down on Monday night in the 400 IM appears to have gotten Phelps' attention.
Now, they push each other, up and down the pool and all the way to the English Channel.
It's the larger scale “cat-and-mouse game” that Phelps talked about last night. He said neither he nor Lochte got off to a good start because they are looking for each other, they keep track of where the other is, and then they turn it on at the end.
“The problem is, they forget to swim fast,” Bowman said.
Tell it to the poor guys in their chlorine dust. Phelps has the perfect incentive to push him to a final date with history. Unless Lochte gets their first.
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