INDIANAPOLIS — Michael Phelps hates the 400-meter individual medley. He hates the pain it produces. He hates the training time it requires. He hates the mental toll it exacts. Since he won a gold medal in the event at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, he has sworn he will never swim it again in another Olympics.
Yet he sounded very much Friday night as if he were leaning toward adding it to his program at the U.S. Olympic trials in July, a decision that would set up a huge, highly anticipated confrontation on Day 1 with rival Ryan Lochte, the current 400 IM world champion.
“It’s a race that means a lot to us as a country and for me, somebody who has swum it so many times,” Phelps said. “If it happens, it would start everything off on an exciting note.”
About an hour earlier, Phelps won the 400 individual medley final at the Indianapolis Grand Prix in 4 minutes 12.51 seconds, topping Tyler Clary, who came home in 4:13.01. Though Phelps’s time was about nine seconds off of his world record, it was actually — and somewhat amazingly — the fastest Phelps had ever swum in-season, he and his coach said, including leading up to the 2008 Summer Games.
“I’m definitely happy,” Phelps said. “Who knows [about the Olympics]? . . . I would have to do that well and then be able to come back and swim a bunch of other events well.”
Added Phelps with a grin, reminded that he said he would never swim the 400 medley again: “Yes, it is different than what I said before. I understand that.”
Phelps’s coach, Bob Bowman, admitted in 2009 that it was his “dream” for Phelps to take up the 400 medley after dispensing with it after the Beijing Games. NBC executives may very well have the same dream, and they could be hyperventilating over the possibility of a Phelps-Lochte showdown to open the swimming competition at the 2012 Summer Games in London.
“I know he hasn’t done it in the three years since ’08, but it’s coming up to an Olympic year and he’s done the training,” Lochte said. “He knows he’s capable of doing it. I told myself, ‘He’s going to do it again.’ There’s no doubt in my mind. I honestly think he’d be dumb if he didn’t.”
In other news Friday, teen star Missy Franklin claimed a pair of medals, winning gold in the 200 backstroke in 2:07.97 and silver in the 200 freestyle (1:57.97) behind Allison Schmitt (1:56.79); Towson’s Katie Hoff placed fourth in 1:58.64. Lochte, who is in the midst of heavy training, finished fourth in the 200 backstroke in 1:59.34 and did not compete in the 200 freestyle.
Dara Torres, 44, finished sixth in the 50 freestyle final in 25.47, a respectable time after the 25.36 she posted to take second in the morning heats. Madison Kennedy won the gold in 24.99. In the men’s 50, Nathan Adrian claimed the gold in 21.88 as Anthony Ervin took the bronze in 22.24. Ervin, 30, returned to swimming last year after an eight-year absence; he won gold in the 50 free at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.
In the 400 individual medley, Phelps was pushed hard by Clary, who took the lead on the backstroke leg but surrendered it during the breaststroke. Phelps came home fast, determined to hold off Clary.
“It is interesting,” Bowman said about Phelps’s surprising time. “He just killed himself to do that. He had to gut it out. . . . But our goal was to break [4:]15. He’s in pretty good shape to do that time — obviously.”
Though Bowman pointed out that the 400 individual medley presents a grueling way to kick off an Olympics, the only thing really standing in the way of Phelps’s swimming the event at the U.S. Olympic trials is Phelps. Even Phelps’s mother Debbie has tried to persuade her son to return to one of his signature races. It interferes with nothing else on the Olympic schedule.
“He said he’s never swimming it again,” Bowman said before the race. “I never said he’s not doing it again.”
Phelps has wrestled with the 400 medley since Beijing. He swam the event in yards in 2009 in an unsuccessful attempt to regain his old world record at that distance. He took it up for the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine, but performed so abysmally he didn’t advance out of the morning finals.
After that, he announced that he was done. The 400 individual medley was finished.
But not really. He unveiled it at the Austin Grand Prix two months ago, putting up a time of 4:16.95 to win the event.
“There’s a crack in the door,” Bowman said. “Maybe a bigger crack than the other night.”