MESA, Ariz. -- Feeling as antsy and excited as a 10-year-old in a summer swim league, 18-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps stepped onto the starting block Thursday for the morning heat in his first competitive race since the 2012 London Olympics. Right below him in the water was Ryan Lochte, who was just finishing up his heat in the 100-meter butterfly with what at that moment was the day's fastest qualifying time -- 52.94.
Phelps looked down at him and said, "Why did you go so fast?" Then Phelps dove into the pool and swam his heat a tenth of a second faster than Lochte (52.84) for the quickest qualifying time of the day.
But later, in the evening final, Lochte beat Phelps by .2 seconds, leading the whole way.
During a postrace interview for the crowd, Lochte said that when he saw he had the lead over Phelps at the turn, he felt like smiling. "I'm like, that's not very nice," Phelps joked later. "That's not a good reason to be smiling."
Ahh, the rivalry is back.
Larry Bird doesn't match up against Magic Johnson anymore. Muhammad Ali doesn't fight Joe Frazier. Pedro Martinez doesn't even wrestle Don Zimmer. But at least we have Phelps and Lochte swimming against each other stroke for stroke again.
"I know it's going to come up, so I'm going to answer it now. I'm glad he's back," Lochte said. "Me and him, we push each other all the time. What he's done for the sport of swimming, and his leaving -- it kind of broke my heart. I love racing against him, and I'm glad he's back. Racing against him is so much fun. It's a challenge."
"Him and I can't stand losing to one another," said Phelps, who finished second in the final with a time of 52.13. "We both want to beat each other as many times as we can. That's the competitiveness we both have. When we do get in the water, we're going to do everything we can to get our hand on the wall before [the other]. In every single race. And it's the same for him. We'll fight to the end, in any stroke, in any event we swim.
"It's a fun competition, a fun rivalry, a friendly competition. We bring the best out of each other. It's just fun racing."
Lochte said that when took his spot on the starting block for the final, seeing Phelps next to him again felt weird at first. But it soon became natural. And why not? They have stood on neighboring blocks many times over the past decade. Theirs has been one of the great rivalries in sports, and it has made each of them better. Lochte said his winning time in the 100 fly (51.93) would not have been so fast had Phelps not been pushing him in the next lane.
"Racing against Michael, it's probably the hardest thing to do, and I love it," Lochte said. "I've been racing against him since 2004. I know every time I go on those blocks and he's right next to me, it's going to be one of the hardest races you'll do because he'll push you to the limits that you don't want your body to go through."
While all the attention has been on Phelps' comeback from his brief retirement, Lochte said he nearly retired as well last year.
"I was going through a rough patch right after world championships," Lochte said. "I wasn't really motivated about being back in the water. Then my injury with my knee happened and I was like, 'Maybe I should throw in the towel.' But I didn't. I found that little spark that kept me going. I found different ways of making swimming fun again, and having Phelps back in the water definitely helps because we're going to go back to me and him pushing each other.
"We'll try to give you guys a show."
They won't race against each other Friday, though. Lochte will swim the 200 freestyle and 200 backstroke, while Phelps will compete in the 50 free. And get this: Phelps will swim the butterfly in that event to work on his stroke. After that, his racing will be over at this meet. Just how far his comeback takes him remains to be seen.
"It's one meet, it's one race. It's a long way whether I decide to do it or not," Phelps said when asked about the 2016 Rio Olympics. "This was awesome. I'm really excited about how things went. I do know what I need to do, and I want to continue. I want to swim faster.
"I'm not saying yes or no [to 2016]. Like I said the other day, I'm doing this because I want to. I'm doing this because I'm having fun. I'm not putting any pressure on myself and say, 'I'm doing this' or say, 'I'm doing that' in the future. I'm just enjoying myself on this road and this process and this journey."
And Lochte will be beside him, pushing him each stroke.
"It wasn't like I ever really missed him because I felt like he was always there," Lochte said. "I think I can talk for everyone that everyone is happy he's back in the water."