By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 15 -- There will be the question, when people mull over the results from the Beijing Olympics and scan the list of names behind Michael Phelps, of what might have been had Phelps never appeared. It is an absurd notion now, as Phelps continues to think the unthinkable and do the undoable. Friday brought another race, another gold medal, another world record, this one in the 200-meter individual medley.
Second in that race to Phelps was Laszlo Cseh of Hungary. What to make of him? He now has three silver medals here, all behind Phelps. A hero back home, he might be known worldwide in a Phelps-less existence. Cseh was followed, and barely, by American Ryan Lochte, who somehow dived into the pool less than a half-hour after a brutal, gold medal-winning swim of his own -- and competed with Phelps, the man who has no match.
"Michael," Cseh said, "is unbeatable."
Friday, then, was a day to celebrate the accomplishments of not only Phelps -- who won his sixth gold medal of these Games, leaving him one short of Mark Spitz's record for a single Olympics -- but of swimmers such as Lochte, who set a world record and out-touched Aaron Peirsol, the best ever at his discipline, in the 200 backstroke. It was a day when 21-year-old Rebecca Soni of New Jersey surprised Australian Leisel Jones in the women's 200 breaststroke, winning an unexpected gold for the United States, setting another record. It was a day when Natalie Coughlin of California won her fifth medal here and 10th of her career, a bronze in the 100 freestyle behind an Olympic record from Germany's Britta Steffen, who beat Australia's Libby Trickett for gold.
And it was a day, too, to consider the levels to which Phelps is raising his competitors, many of whom, as Cseh and Lochte did in the 200 individual medley, only see his feet.
"If he wasn't in the sport of swimming, I don't think I'd be as good, just because he's up there and I just want to become better than him," Lochte said. "So it helps me. It pushes me in practice and everything. I can say without him I wouldn't be where I am right now."
Where he is right now, as someone who has vanquished Peirsol, is in rare air. Peirsol already won the 100 backstroke here, backing up golds at both distances four years ago in Athens. He carried a seven-year winning streak in the 200 into last year's world championships.
There, though, Lochte rocked him, taking the title and the world record. "It's the sport we're in," Peirsol said Friday. "Nobody owns any particular race." At the U.S. trials, Peirsol tied Lochte's world record.
Lochte, though, is afraid of no one. Not Phelps. Not Peirsol. When he finished in 1 minute 53.94 seconds -- .38 of a second better than the old world mark, .39 of a second ahead of Peirsol -- it took a moment to realize what had happened.
"Ryan swam a wonderful race," Peirsol said. Finally, after a bronze in the 400 IM and a silver in the 200 IM four years ago, one of those wonderful races yielded Olympic gold.
"I touched the wall," Lochte said, "and I was just like, 'Thank you. Finally.' "
But could he, possibly, follow gold with gold, an accomplishment that would mean not only overcoming near exhaustion, but -- oh, by the way -- beating Phelps? Phelps first took the world record in the 200 IM in 2003, more than a year before winning it at the Athens Games. He has never relinquished the mark, even as Lochte, a 24-year-old Floridian, developed into a swimmer talented enough to pick a la carte from the sport's menu. He chose the 200 backstroke and 200 IM, even though it meant facing Phelps and Peirsol back-to-back.
"The 200 back-200 IM double is one of the hardest doubles," Phelps said, "if not the hardest. . . . That's an incredible day for him."
Lochte learned, both through trials and the preliminary heats here, that as difficult as it is to twice swim 200 all-out meters within 27 minutes -- involving all four disciplines and every possible muscle -- makes the body ache, the mind do flips.
"There's a physical part, but I've trained for it," he said. "I'm used to it. The biggest part for me is the psychological part."
That is the part Phelps has mastered. Though his program was laid out for the world four years ago, when he swam the exact same events in Athens, and then reinforced at the 2007 world championships, watching the way Phelps is able to focus and perform for each swim jars even elite athletes.
"I think I know how to conserve my energy," he said. He is measured when it's appropriate, aggressive when pushed. Following Friday's semifinal of the 100-meter butterfly, in which he qualified second fastest for Saturday's final, he has 15 swims done, two more remaining.
"The mental energy and emotional energy and physical energy it takes to go out there and get up every time, even for a prelim, you have to put in some kind of effort -- even Michael," said Katie Hoff, who grew up training at the same North Baltimore Aquatic Club that produced Phelps and tried to swim in six events here. "It's incredible to me. He's swimming even more than I swam, doing it in world record time and [winning] gold medals. It definitely gives me a lot more respect."
Soni gained a measure of respect, too, and helped right a somewhat wayward meet for the American women with her victory in 2:20.22.
"It just kind of flowed," she said. "It just kind of happened."
That, by now, is what's transpiring for Phelps. He was more than half a second under world record pace after the first 50 meters of the 200 IM, which combines all four strokes. He separated himself from Cseh in the third leg, the breaststroke. He touched in 1:54.23, more than two seconds ahead of Cseh.
And gliding in, just a hundredth of a second behind Cseh for bronze, came Lochte. For once at this meet, someone had a bigger day than Phelps. "I'm just happy," Lochte said. There was no point in imagining what might happen for others without Phelps. Lochte won gold anyway.