Happy 27th Birthday Michael Phelps. What gift will Ryan Lochte bring to battle at the Century Link Convention Center today as day 6 delivers the gladiatorial glow of swimming at its very best?
Peter Motekaitis, coach to comeback 200m breaststroke winner at US trials last night here in Omaha, summed it up with a smile when he said: "He used to be a medley swimmer but we got some folk called Lochte and Phelps so we thought we'd go for something else".
Something else is what Michael, 27 today, and Ryan have turned competition into. When they take the plunge, the plug is pulled on the other six lanes. Duel in another pool is what they're about - and paces at dawn as they both swim 100 butterfly heats the morning after Lochte strutted peacock-like through the semis of the 200m back and 200IM will have turned to the crack of pistols by the time the moon rises this evening.
What monumental moments, this and the bigger sixth wave of the Olympic programme at London 2012 a month from now: prelims of the 100m butterfly for breakfast before the guests arrive later in the day for a banquet of backstroke (200m for Lochte) followed by an epic medley, with butterfly dressing to round off the feast.
Lochte, coached by Gregg Troy, had the edge yesterday, the world record holder and champion toying with the Olympic champion in a playful 1:55.51 to 1:56.66 bout. Phelps, coached by Bob Bowman, has got a touch sharper through the week but the killer punch looks to be missing this side of full taper and he cannot quite be where he needs to be early in the race to make it come down to the last lap like it did in Shanghai for the world title and record last year - and then reverse the order.
Take the Shanghai splits:
Lochte's nod to the 100m butterfly (whether he swim it through to semis or not) is one of the keys: it is the place where he has had to sharpen a knife fit to wield at Phelps. If the world champion can turn with the Olympic champion and then flip into breaststroke ahead of him, game over is more likely. All the more so because Lochte has made big gains on breaststroke since Beijing 2008. A similar understanding of Phelps's strength could be found in Hungarian thinking behind the challenge of Lazslo Cseh.
Look how far Lochte has come:
This time round, today in Nebraska but more so when the five rings make a knuckle-duster in Blighty, Lochte, on 1:55.73 in the semi of his first race yesterday, will have warmed-up with a 200m backstroke final (defence of a crown no less in London). Imagine if any had suggested that he could take on that kind of programme against Phelps and win four years ago. Cue belly laughs.
Serious stuff four years on. “Obviously, I want every race,” said Phelps. “Hopefully, I’ll get a birthday present.”
The 2009 and 2011 world champion wants it all too, in every round it seems, while Phelps is playing a different game. “I knew he kinda took off,” he said after the 200IM semi. I was like, ‘Oh, I probably should save something for [Saturday]. I kind of just shut it down. The race was kind of over."
Everyone saw it. Tonight it won't be over until its over in a last lunge to the wall, the only certainty before time runs out in London that we will have witnessed the gladiatorial glow of swimming at its very best. That's a big part of what these two fighters are all about: helping the sport to punch above its weight.