SHANGHAI — This is getting repetitive, in a Michael Phelps sort of way. Ryan Lochte won his third and fourth gold medals at the world swimming championships Friday night, obliterating the field in the final of the 200-meter backstroke before unleashing a jaw-dropping anchor leg to help bail out a U.S. 4x200 relay team that sat in third place after Phelps’s leadoff swim.
At the start of this meet, swimming fans wondered whether Lochte could hold his own against Phelps on such a major stage. The question, now, has changed: Can Phelps get his throne back at the London Olympics next summer?
Lochte led from start to finish in the backstroke final, then produced a dramatic comeback victory in a gripping relay with the fastest leg of the night. The two races had this in common: Lochte touched the wall about a body length ahead of the silver medal winners.
As American Rebecca Soni completed a gold-medal double in the breaststroke and Missy Franklin, 16, continued to raise hopes that she will be the next great U.S. female swimmer — she set an American record in the semifinals of the 200 backstroke — Lochte kept the pressure on Phelps, who has won two golds, two silvers and a bronze, for that title on the men’s side.
“If you go by medals alone . . . it’s a definite changing of the guard,” said U.S. teammate Tyler Clary, who won the bronze medal in the 200 backstroke. “Some people might say Michael’s not exactly on his game, but all that matters in a race is who comes prepared that day, and lately it’s been Ryan.”
Lochte won the 200 backstroke in 1 minute 52.96 seconds, topping Japan’s Ryosuke Irie, who finished in 1:54.11, and Clary, 1:54.69. Shortly after the medal ceremony, and after Phelps advanced in the heats of the 100 fly, Lochte, Phelps, Peter Vanderkaay and Ricky Berens stepped on the pool deck for the final of a relay the United States has won in every major championship since the 2004 Summer Games in Athens.
The Americans prevailed, winning in 7:02.67 over France (7:04.81) and China (7:05.67) but it wasn’t easy. Phelps led at the 100 mark, only to be passed over the last 100 by Germany’s Paul Biedermann and France’s Yannick Agnel.
When Vanderkaay jumped in the water, he trailed Germany by .33 seconds and the French by .28. Phelps looked dismayed. Vanderkaay, however, regained the lead by .46 seconds.
“Obviously, I would have liked to have swum a little faster in the leadoff,” Phelps said. “I’ve said this every night so far: Hopefully, with more training, I can swim faster. . . . These guys have pulled the back end of the relay together really well.”
France’s Jeremy Stravius inched ahead of Berens on the third leg, putting the United States behind by 0.65 as Lochte dove in against Fabien Gilot. The two were just about even after 100 meters before Lochte sped away, giving the United States a victory margin of 2.14 seconds. The Chinese finished 5.65 seconds back.
“There’s two guys you want to have at the end of a relay, Michael and Ryan,” Berens said. “When Ryan is hot like he is now, you don’t want anyone else at the end of a relay.”
The last man celebrating Lochte’s achievements this week has been Lochte; he hasn’t so much as offered a satisfied smile or waggled a finger at the end of his gold-medal races. Both he and Phelps have two more events to swim. Both will compete in the 4x100 medley relay; Phelps has the 100 butterfly final and Lochte, the 400 individual medley. Lochte seems determined not to break his concentration as he seeks to leave here with six golds.
“I have a lot of confidence, especially after what happened last year” at the Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine, where he won six gold medals, Lochte said. “I still have one more [individual] race left to finish off this meet, then, after that, get ready for 2012.”
Clary said anyone who discounts Phelps next year would look like a fool, but noted that things had suddenly gotten very interesting entering the 2012 Summer Games.
“People like controversy,” Clary said. “People like to see the greatest Olympic champion of all time possibly get beat.”
They also enjoy seeing new champions emerge. Franklin, who has earned a gold, silver and bronze already, made herself the gold-medal favorite in Saturday’s 200 backstroke final by posting the fastest time in the semifinals. Her finish in 2:05.90 went under Margaret Hoelzer’s American best of 2:06.09 from 2008.
“She is awesome,” U.S. teammate Elizabeth Beisel said. “She didn’t even know it was an American record. . . . She was like, ‘What? No way!’ She definitely one day is going to be the face of the women’s team.”
Time — most likely about a year — will tell who will be the face of the men’s team.
“Times speak for themself,” Clary said. “The fact that just about every one of [Lochte’s] races he’s pretty much done it hands down, that’s all the speaking that needs to be done.”