In the end, Ryan Lochte, the reigning world champion in the event, held off Michael Phelps, the reigning Olympic champion, as both claimed Olympic team slots while fending off a powerful early push by Tyler Clary, who led at the race’s halfway point but faltered in the end.
Lochte pulled away during the breaststroke leg, winning in 4 minutes 7.06 seconds as Phelps touched the wall in 4:07.89. Both men hovered in the pool after the race, chests heaving, expressionless, before shaking hands. The victory gave Lochte a boost entering the London Games, where he will try to upend Phelps’s quest to earn a third straight gold medal in the event.
“It’s a rivalry we’ve had for almost eight years now,” said Lochte, who had never beaten Phelps in the event before. “We’ve just been swinging back and forth. It’s hard to say who the best swimmer is, because we’re both such great racers.”
Lochte and Phelps could face off here again in the 200 freestyle, the 200 individual medley and possibly the 100 freestyle. Phelps is also likely to swim the 100 and 200 butterflies; while Lochte will add the 200 backstroke and possibly another event. Lochte will attempt in London to dethrone Phelps as the world’s most accomplished, versatile swimmer, as both men seek this week to put themselves in position to win as many as eight gold medals.
Clary claimed the unlucky third spot, finishing in 4:09.92 after leading after the backstroke leg. Only the top two finishers in each event here win Olympic team berths.
In the night’s other finals, Elizabeth Beisel won the women’s 400 medley in 4:31.74 as Caitlin Leverenz claimed second in 4:34.48; and Peter Vanderkaay won the 400 freestyle in 3:47.67 as Conor Dwyer got second in 3:47.83.
“All three of us were side by side by side, neck and neck and neck,” Phelps said about the 400 medley. “You could hear the excitement from the crowd. I think that was something that played a role in giving me extra energy in the last 50.”
The swimmers were greeted by a roaring, standing, stomping crowd when they walked onto the pool deck of the CenturyLink Center for the first final of these Olympic trials. Lochte and Phelps emerged from the bowels of the arena with heads down, grim faces.
Neither acknowledged the fans, even while applause thundered down when their names were announced.
After winning the 400 IM while setting a world record at the 2008 Summer Games, Phelps had declared that he was through with the taxing event. But after alternately toying with it and abandoning it in exasperation, Phelps decided to resurrect it for these trials.