LONDON -- For four years, Ryan Lochte had put in the work. He flipped tires, pulled chains, stopped going to fast-food restaurants and did everything he could to help his body prepare to beat Michael Phelps in swimming's most grueling race, the 400-meter individual medley.
He would lie in bed or sit on the leather couch in his house with his docile Doberman, Carter, and picture what the opening night of the 2012 Olympics would look like. There he would be, standing atop the podium, the national anthem bouncing off the curved ceiling in the London Aquatics Centre, a giant slab of gold hanging from his neck. And a sparkling, silver grill would cover his teeth. It was the only way.
But when his dreams finally came true here Saturday night after Lochte dominated the field with the second-fastest 400 IM ever, the celebration was hardly what he had envisioned. For one, when he headed to the podium with his Lil Wayne-like accessory, an Olympics official insisted he take the hardware out of his mouth or he wouldn't get his gold.
"Can you believe that?" he said later.
Then, neither of the men standing on his left or right was named Michael Phelps. On this night, the greatest swimmer who ever lived finished fourth, more than 4 seconds behind Lochte and 0.34 seconds off the medal podium. Instead of standing next to Phelps, Lochte was anchored by Brazil's Thiago Pereira and 17-year-old Kosuke Hagino of Japan.
"It was weird," Lochte said of being on the podium without his rival. "Really weird."
There are those who will write the story of Saturday's much-hyped showdown as a passing of the torch or a sign there is a new sheriff in the water. Pick your favorite cliché. But the reality is Lochte has been beating Phelps since the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships. He did it in the 200 IM and 200 free at last year's World Championships. He did it in the 400 IM at Olympic trials. And although Phelps beat him in three other events in Omaha, Neb., Lochte insisted he wasn't fully tapered and the real show would come in London. Wow, was he right.
Someday, when he looks back on this, Lochte will see Saturday as the night when everything changed, when he became not only a huge name in swimming, but also in sports.
"It feels amazing to know that in the last four years all the hard work I put in finally paid off," Lochte said.
For Phelps, the story was the exact opposite. For the first time since 2000, he entered an Olympic final and didn't win a medal. It was a streak that had stretched a mind-boggling 13 events, and yet it came to an end Saturday night.
"It's just a crappy race," he said. "It's frustrating. That's all I can say. It's pretty upsetting."
Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, was equally stunned.
"I'm surprised," he said. "And not pleasantly."
Phelps' problems began Saturday morning when he squeezed into the eighth and final qualifying spot by out-touching Hungary's Laszlo Cseh by 0.07 seconds. That put him in the unenviable position of trying to win Saturday night's final from Lane 8.
After 50 meters, Lochte already had taken a short lead, and with each split, he stretched the space between him and Phelps more and more. By the halfway point, Phelps trailed Lochte by more than 3.5 seconds and Brazil's Pereira by 2 seconds. After 50 meters of the breast, unquestionably Phelps' weakest stroke, he slipped to fourth place and never came back.
It was the strangest of sights -- Phelps failing to win a race and his stretched body cutting into the surface of the water trailing multiple bodies.
And now the questions will come. Is this a one-time bump in the road or the beginning of the end? Is this Willie Mays playing center field for the Mets? Emmitt Smith carrying the football for the Cardinals? Or is this just the world returning to normal, allowing us all a moment to better appreciate Phelps' incredible feat four years ago in Beijing?
"Surprising is the word that comes to mind," U.S. swimmer Eric Shanteau said. "People, probably all of us, got spoiled by what he did and took any Olympic medal for granted. [Finishing fourth] doesn't take away from anything he did in the past or who he is or the rest of the meet for that matter. ... It'll be interesting to see how he uses this as motivation."
Lochte echoed those words, insisting Phelps' Saturday struggles will only serve to further motivate the 27-year-old in the last competition of his career.
"I'll tell you this," Lochte said. "The next races he's in, he's going to light it up."
Phelps' next individual challenge will come Monday morning in preliminary heats of the 200 butterfly, an event in which, prior to 2011, he had been unbeatable for nearly a decade. Another performance like the one he had Saturday night, and you'll see Bowman panic.
For now, Phelps' focus is on putting this disaster behind him and figuring out a way to move on. It won't be easy. The 400 IM is always a risk because of the draining effect it can have on a swimmer's body. Phelps swore off the event after 2009, insisting he'd never swim it again. But he and Bowman changed their minds, put the event back in the program, and now have zapped some of Phelps' energy with little to show for it.
"I hate to swim two of those and not get a medal, but that's what we've done," Bowman said. "We just have to put it behind us."
"The biggest thing now is to get past this and move forward," Phelps said. "Hopefully we can finish a lot better than what we started."
Lochte, on the other hand, will look to do the exact opposite. On Saturday night, he was all smiles. As soon as he hopped off the medal podium, he shoved his silver grill in his mouth and began a parade around the pool deck to "Born in the USA." He threw his congratulatory bouquet to his mother, Ike, and walked through the mixed zone wearing a special hat his brother Devon made for him for his brother's birthday. It features the letters "R" and "L" in sign language.
"It means so much to be able to share this with my family," Lochte said.
Back in the massage room, Phelps extended his hand, and congratulated Lochte on the win and keeping the 400 IM Olympic title in the U.S. for four more years. The red, white and blue haven't lost the race since 1992.
"He was definitely proud of me," Lochte said. "I know at the same time he was probably upset."
Phelps and Lochte should square off again Thursday in the 200 IM, but as we learned during Saturday's prelims, anything is possible. Lochte also faces the possibility of a double final that day, as he likely will reach the 200 backstroke final. While Phelps will seek revenge, Lochte will be looking to cement his place as the top swimmer in the world.
"I don't know if this puts me as one of the world's greatest," Lochte said after Saturday's win. "I hope so, but I guess that's not my decision. All I can say is, to me, Michael is one of the world's greatest. No matter what happens, he will always go down as one of the greatest."
The key words for Lochte being one of the greatest.