OMAHA, Neb. -- Ryan Lochte was trying to leave. For once, he had no interest in standing in front of a camera, batting his blue eyes and explaining what went right -- and wrong -- in a swimming meet. It wasn't because he had lost to Michael Phelps in the 200-meter individual medley or because he had a dinner reservation he didn't want to miss. It was because he was hurting. Bad.
Wearing a black T-shirt with pink letters that read, "I Love Breast" on the front and "Stroke" on the back, Lochte was nearly out the door of the CenturyLink Center on Saturday night when a U.S. Swimming representative intercepted him and asked if he'd be willing to answer a couple of quick questions for the media.
Lochte didn't answer. And his expressionless face didn't change. But he turned around and headed for the news conference room. On the way, a reporter asked how he was feeling. Lochte shook his head side to side ever so slightly to say, "No." It wasn't no as in, "Don't ask me a question"; it was no as in, "Not good."
Minutes later, up on the podium, he explained further.
"Tonight was probably the most pain I've endured in a swimming competition," Lochte said.
Those who don't understand the sport of swimming will look at the results from Saturday night's U.S. Olympics trials and conclude that Lochte had a rough go of it. Sure, he started the night by holding off Tyler Clary to win the 200 backstroke final in a time of 1:54.54. But in the big race of the night, the 200 IM, in which Lochte is the defending world champion and world-record holder, he lost to rival Michael Phelps. Then, in the 100 butterfly semifinal, he qualified sixth, a position some might consider disappointing for a man vying for the title of world's greatest swimmer.
But the triple that Lochte attempted here was nearly unprecedented. Only Phelps had tried something similar, at trials in 2004. It is a grueling physical test that leaves the body full of lactic acid and absent of energy. Three world-class races, two finals, one semifinal -- all within 53 minutes.
"It's not a good feeling," Phelps said of attempting such a feat. "You're definitely in a lot of pain. I would never sign up for it. I'm glad I don't have to do that again."
Gregg Troy, Lochte's coach, said he and Lochte first discussed the triple some five or six weeks ago in an effort to bring a new challenge to a man who thrives on them. Troy said Lochte will likely swim 100-meter events in the years to come, and this was a good way to get a feel for where he's at in those events. Troy added that Lochte was unlikely to scratch the 100 fly final on Sunday night and, depending on what happens in that race, he could attempt the triple again in London.
"This is about a guy who loves to race and I was just looking for some motivation and another opportunity to race," Troy said.
At the end of the night, Troy labeled the 27-year-old Lochte's performance as "great."
"One of the best performances ever," he said. "We just didn't quite get our hand on the wall one time as well as we would have liked to."
That came in the final of the 200 IM, which was yet another nail-biter between Lochte and Phelps. Knowing Lochte had just 25 minutes to recover after his victory in the 200 back, Phelps purposely pushed the pace in the first 50, trying to put the pressure on his rival, but at the turn he had built merely a .08 second lead. By the 150 mark, Phelps expanded his lead to almost three-tenths of a second, and that's when both swimmers "went crazy," as Phelps said.
Phelps swam the final 50 free in 27.48 and held off the charging Lochte, who finished in 27.31. His winning time of 1:54.84 was the fastest time in the world this year and less than nine-tenths of a second off Lochte's world-record time from last summer in Shanghai.
Underwater replays showed that Lochte reached for the final wall first, but Phelps managed to touch the wall before anyone else.
"A win is a win," Phelps said. "It feels good to be back on that side, but I'm sure that's not going to be the end of us going back and forth."
After the IM, Lochte admitted he was exhausted. The 200 back is legendary for zapping a swimmer's strength because of its heavy reliance on the legs. And he still had the 100 fly to go. But before that -- a mere 15 minutes after the IM -- he was racing to the other end of the arena to join Tyler Clary on the medal stand to celebrate his win in the 200 back.
During the ceremony, Lochte stretched his arms and his legs. He tried to stay loose. Eleven minutes later, he was back on the pool deck, this time for the fly. After his time of 52.47 in that race, it was clear he was in pain. He was the last to get out of the water. He did so slowly. And then he needed to sit down for a couple of minutes before retreating to the warm-down area.
This is a man who likes pain, who likes challenges. This is someone who is itching to jump out of an airplane, who used to jump off of houses and into pools as a kid. Nothing scares him. Nothing stops him. But, on this night, he came close to meeting his match. At one point, there was a rumor in the mixed zone that Lochte had gotten sick after the race. His representatives said that wouldn't have surprised them, as it has apparently happened before. But not on Saturday night.
Instead, Lochte just felt miserable. After his five-minute news conference, Lochte said the plan was to head back to his hotel for a big dinner, then get an ice bath and a massage. Sunday morning, the goal was to sleep in as late as he could. How late would that likely be?
"I don't know," Lochte said. "The way my body has been going all week, probably about 7 [a.m.]."