By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010; 12:05 AM
IRVINE, CALIF. - Michael Phelps is a multi-millionaire, swimming icon and Olympic legend largely because his performances nearly always rise as the challenges increase. The more pressure he faces, the faster he swims. The more competent the competition, the more likely Phelps will crush it.
But fellow American Ryan Lochte, who has emerged this summer from Phelps's shadow with gloves raised, threatens to put a dent in that reputation as early as Thursday night.
Phelps easily won his first final of the Pan Pacific Championships Wednesday, opening with an impressive victory in the 200-meter butterfly with his finish in 1 minute 54.11 seconds. But Lochte, a free spirit with a preference for white tuxedos and sparkling emerald green sneakers, also dominated his first event, destroying the field in the 200 freestyle with a time of 1:45.30 - the fastest time in the world this year.
The two should meet for the first time here in the 400 individual medley Thursday, and it has been Lochte, not Phelps, who has been the top-performing American this year. Lochte declares himself in the best shape of his life; Phelps rates himself a four or five on a scale of 1 to 10.
"They've traded places," Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, quipped Wednesday morning.
For sure, their competition this week - head-to-head and for total medals - will provide good theater at a meet that features 21 nations outside of Europe. Factor in that Phelps has not competed in the 400 medley, a taxing, training-heavy event he grew to loathe, since setting the world record at the Olympics. The 14-time Olympic medalist, whose lack of recent competition has robbed him of any sense of how fast he will be able to go, suddenly looks a bit like an underdog.
That, of course, usually brings out the best in him.
"It's going to be a hard one," Phelps said. "It's going to be painful. I know that. I've got to be able to get up and swim in the morning."
Indeed, Phelps won't be able to sleepwalk through his morning heat Thursday and still wind up in the final. Unlike at the world championships or Olympics, Americans who are among the top eight performers in the preliminary rounds get bumped from the finals if they aren't among the top two Americans, since the Pan Pacs limit finalists to two from each nation.
"I don't think he's going to be ridiculously bad," Bowman said. "The problem is, he has to do a good one in the morning and then another at night."
Wednesday night, Phelps led from start to finish, topping second-place Australian Nick D'Arcy by 0.62 of a second. In the earlier 200 free, Lochte pulled away over the last 100, topping South Korea's Park Tae Hwan by 0.57.
"I was hurting," Phelps said. "About the last 15 meters, I was like, 'Please get to the wall.' I felt a splash of water in the lane next to me and I was like, 'Please don't get run down. Please don't get run down.' "
Great Falls's Kate Ziegler announced she is really back with a surprising victory in the 800 free late Wednesday, blowing away the favored Chloe Sutton over the final 100 to win in 8:21.59. Ziegler, a two-time world champion in the event, took much of the last year off and did not compete in the world championships. The time topped her best this year by nearly four seconds and was her best effort since she swam her personal best of 8:18.52 in 2007.
"I'm really happy with the result," Ziegler said. "I'm just enjoying the journey this time around. . . . I went into it without expectations. This whole summer, I've been going out with an open mind."
In other races, Natalie Coughlin proved she didn't dance herself out of swimming shape. After an 18-month layoff from swimming that included a stint on "Dancing With The Stars," Coughlin returned to training in January, tested out an approach that included an unheard-of three days off a week and still managed to make the team and claim third in the 100 backstroke with a finish in 59.70. "I'm really, really, really happy," she said.
Also happy was backstroke legend Aaron Peirsol, who got a spot in the night's 100 backstroke only because Lochte, who wanted to focus on the 200 free, gave his up. Peirsol, the third-best American in the morning heats, took advantage of Lochte's generosity, winning the final in 53.31. "I should start off by thanking Ryan Lochte," he said after. "I owe him something after the meet."
Phelps might not feel the same way Thursday.
Bowman was thrilled when Phelps decided, almost on a whim, to return to the 400 medley while watching Lochte win it at the U.S. championships two weeks ago. Bowman just wished Phelps had dived back in sooner so he could get some significant training time at a distance he has owned since Aug. 15, 2002, when he set the world record for the first time (he has lowered it seven times since).
"We've talked a lot about how can you just turn your back on an event that's your event?" Bowman said.
That, though, gives rise to another question, can Lochte take it from him? Lochte stole Phelps's world record in the 200 individual medley last summer, then he beat him in the 200 medley final at the U.S. championships two weeks ago. And while Lochte, a six-time Olympic medal winner, stepped up his training after having knee surgery last November, Phelps has struggled for motivation two years out from the next Olympic games.
If Lochte were to beat Phelps in the 400 individual medley, it would be a first. He's 0 for 9 against Phelps over the last eight years.
Said Lochte: "It's going to be fun. . . . I feel good. I've done the training and everything. I'm just going to go back and keep doing what I've been doing."