Lochte, Phelps join forces for gold

LONDON -- Ryan Lochte stepped up to the microphone before the assembled media looking relieved. Behind him, a relaxed Michael Phelps waited his turn. The two superstars whose rivalry provided the biggest cliffhanger coming into the Summer Games are friendly, respectful teammates who play cards on the road at major meets, but seeing them sharing space in public outside the pool deck seemed novel.

Yet after Tuesday night's final race, they might as well have morphed into baseball players doing interviews in the clubhouse after a crucial game at the tail end of a long season. Lochte led off the 4x200-meter freestyle relay. Phelps batted cleanup. And in the parlance of the game, they picked each other up.

Lochte was coming off perhaps the most difficult 48-hour stretch of his career. Sunday, he was unable to retain the lead for the U.S. team when he anchored the 4x100 freestyle relay. Monday brought a disappointing fourth-place finish in the 200 freestyle.

Earlier Tuesday evening, Phelps had been touched out in a race where he was once untouchable, the 200 butterfly. The silver medal he won in that event tied him for the most in Olympic competition, but also represented the second time in the space of a few days that his attempt to be the first male swimmer to three-peat as an individual event champion had been thwarted.

History was on the line for Phelps. Lochte, meanwhile, wanted to turn his own story around in the context of a group win. The relay, a point of pride for generations of U.S. swimmers, accomplished both.

"The past two days I wasn't myself," Lochte said. "Everyone just kept on telling me, 'You know what, you're better than that, just forget about it and move on.'"

Tuesday morning, the fourth day of Olympic swimming competition, was a rare one on Lochte's ambitious schedule where he didn't have to get up and race in qualifying heats. "I woke up this morning and I was back to myself, I was that happy-go-lucky guy," he said. "I think that's what really helped me throughout the whole day and in that swim tonight.

"Now I can take that energy and put it into tomorrow's events."

Lochte, in the straightforward words of Phelps' coach Bob Bowman, "did his job." He came into the wall almost a full second ahead of the next-closest team, Australia, in 1:45.15. That split was just .66 off the world-record pace set by leadoff man Michael Phelps for the U.S. team in the 2009 tech-suit bonanza of the world championships in Rome.

The swimmers who followed Lochte on Tuesday, Conor Dwyer and Ricky Berens, extended that lead as the other teams shuffled order behind them. By the time Phelps' angular form arced into the water, his record was already assured.

A winning relay can be an excellent cure for individual event ills. But it's also an interesting animal, requiring a mental switch-flip from one for all to all for one.

This race obviously seemed freighted with more meaning for Phelps than the other three men gathered around the starting block with him. Yet Lochte and U.S. men's head coach Gregg Troy said the subject of Phelps' record didn't come up, although Phelps himself said he asked the swimmers before him to give him a big lead.

Troy, also Lochte's longtime college and club coach at the University of Florida, said there was never any question that Lochte would swim the relay. The coach made it sound as if it wasn't too hard, in his words, to "put him back together."

"It's part of the sport," Troy said. "You've got to handle that and not put your head in the water. It's a tough program. He's doing a good job."

Phelps and Lochte came into this meet continually mentioned in one breath -- a natural phenomenon given their accomplishments and the fact that the U.S. Olympic trials often seemed to boil down to a match race. The question going into London was whether Phelps could hold off his hard-charging yet more mellow rival both in terms of results and public affection.

Instead, those keeping score at home have seen the balance of power seesaw several times. The talk of Lochte forging ahead of Phelps as the sport's leading man has quieted down. Suddenly, after all these years, the two have just one more potential race against each other -- the 200 individual medley later this week. It's now clear that any career comparisons will ultimately be made on paper and not head-to-head.

Lochte has a gift for compartmentalizing his competitiveness. Whether he drubs Phelps or finds himself in his churning wake, he salutes him. "You know what, anything's possible," Lochte said when reporters asked, inevitably, whether he could ever envision challenging Phelps' statistical supremacy. "I'd have to swim in a lot more Olympics."