OMAHA, Neb. -- There were spotlights. Shooting flames. Introductory music by Jay-Z. And more than 11,000 standing, screaming fans. And this was just Round 1.
The question was never whether or not Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte would make the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. If for some reason it didn't happen tonight, it would happen tomorrow or the next day or the next. No, this was the opening round in a summer-long quest to determine who exactly is the greatest male swimmer in the world.
And on Monday night at the U.S. Olympic trials, the 27-year-old Lochte delivered the first blow, beating his rival in their highly anticipated showdown in the 400-meter individual medley by 0.83 seconds.
"He just kicked our ass," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' longtime coach.
After the race, everyone tried to downplay the importance of what one singular race in an eight-day meet truly means. Lochte insisted he wasn't trying to make a statement with his performance. Phelps reminded a national television audience the meet that counts comes in a couple weeks. And Gregg Troy, Lochte's coach, maintained that although it's nice to win, second place is just as good as first place at this meet, in which the top two finishers qualify for London.
But let's be real. This is what the swimming world had been drooling about for months. Ryan versus Michael. Michael versus Ryan. The rivalry that Lochte believes could become the biggest in sports. And in the first installment, in the toughest test in swimming, fans got the show that they were waiting for.
Phelps jumped out to an early lead after the first 50 meters, but then Tyler Clary and Lochte took control. At the halfway point, less than a half second separated Clary (1:58.04), Lochte (1:58.20) and Phelps (158.49). In the first 50 of the breaststroke, Lochte passed Clary, and in the second 50, Phelps did the same. From there, it was a 100-meter freestyle dash to the finish.
When it was all over, Lochte, Phelps and Clary swam the three fastest times in the world this year; but Lochte would come out on top, beating Phelps in the event for the first time and becoming the first U.S. swimmer at trials to punch his ticket to London. Phelps finished second, also qualifying for the Games and becoming the first American male swimmer to make four Olympic teams. Left on the outside looking in was Clary.
"The first race is always the hardest," Lochte said. "I can take a deep breath now, relax and whatever happens, happens. I'm just going to go out there and have fun now."
As if Lochte ever doesn't have fun. After the race, he climbed out of the water and waved to the throng of adoring fans. When one girl beckoned that she loved him, Lochte winked. He then grabbed a marker and became the first U.S. swimmer to sign the bright red English phone booth positioned at the east end of the pool deck.
During the medal ceremony, Lochte threw his basket of flowers to a girl in the front row who near fell over out with excitement. He then heard his mom screaming and walked over to her, gave her a great big hug and wrapped his medal around her neck.
"She was bawling her eyes out," Lochte said. "And I was like, 'Mom!' She's not afraid to show her emotions. She said, 'Thank God you made it so we're not going to London by ourselves.'"
Illeana Lochte was kidding, of course. Her son was a lock this week. But her presence did speak volumes. The woman whose nerves typically keep her out of sight at a pool was front and center to watch her son's big moment. And there are more moments likely to come. Lochte is scheduled to compete in at least nine more events, though he will likely scratch a few. Troy said the final number will likely be around seven. On Tuesday, Lochte will again butt heads with Phelps as they both tackle the 200 freestyle.
We won't see the 400 IM again until London, where Lochte and Troy insist there will be a few more seconds to squeeze out of that 4:07.06 time from Monday.
"There are a couple spots where we've got a couple seconds to play with," Troy said. "But so much of it isn't what I think; it's how the race plays out and how he feels on that day. We've just got to go back to work a little bit."
Phelps, who holds the world record in the event (4:03.84), also insisted there would be more to come in London. Phelps swore he would never swim the pulverizing event after Beijing and now finds himself chasing his rival for gold. But there's no panic. Bowman said after Monday's race that Phelps' time was about what he was expected and there's ample room for improvement, specifically on the breaststroke.
"There are any number of things that he can do better," Bowman said. "Now we know where he is and we feel pretty good about it."
The race was the culmination of an entertaining fire-themed day for the two biggest names in swimming. Both of them were awakened from their afternoon naps by a fire alarm that forced several swimmers to temporarily evacuate their downtown hotel.
"I was pretty upset walking down those steps," Phelps said.
"I was sleeping and it scared the [crap] out of me," Lochte added. "I heard some kid yelling on the fourth floor and I was like, 'I'm going to find that kid.'"
Later, in the first 50 of the opening leg of the breaststroke Monday night, a pyrotechnics malfunction temporarily shot some 30 flames into the air on both sides of the pool.
"I was like, 'What's going on?'" Lochte said.
About two hours later, when his night had finally come to an end, Lochte was as chill and unconcerned as ever. He left his news conference and was walking down a hallway when one of his coaches asked him if he needed any help getting back to his hotel.
"I don't know," Lochte said, shrugging. "Do I?"
The coach didn't answer, and Lochte didn't stop. He didn't turn around. He just kept on walking.
"Nah," he added. "I'm sure I'll be fine."
And off he went, the greatest swimmer in the world. At least for one night.