OMAHA - All month long in chlorinated circles the question had been, would he or wouldn’t he? Would Michael Phelps take on archrival Ryan Lochte in the grueling 400-meter individual medley on opening evening of the Olympic swimming trials here? Or would he save his ammunition for the five other events that he has on his menu? If you know the man and what drives him, the answer was obvious.
Phelps would take the challenge, even at the risk of missing the Games in an event that he’s won twice.
“This is an event I’ve been in for a long time, something I’m happy to finish off my career with,’’ Phelps said Monday night, after he’d pushed the victorious Lochte (4 minutes 7.06 seconds) to the wall to make his fourth Olympic team at 26, finishing .83 seconds astern. “I’m happy to have that monkey off my back for the first event.’’
Even if he’d come in third, as did world silver medalist Tyler Clary, Phelps still almost certainly would have made the team in at least three events. Elizabeth Beisel didn’t have that luxury. Her best race is the 400 IM, in which she won the world title last year and came close to a medal in Beijing, and if she missed the team it would have been one of the biggest surprises of the meet. So she was delighted that the event came right away.
“Absolutely,’’ said the 19-year-old Saunderstown, R.I., native, who swims for Florida and competes for the Bluefish Swim Club in Attleboro, Mass. “Get it out of the way, please.’’
After she topped the prelims by nearly four seconds, everyone had all but given her a place on the team, which freaked her out. “When I came in tonight I was a mess before the race,’’ Beisel confessed. “I was so nervous, probably because I put so much pressure on myself.’’
But once she got to the backstroke after sitting third after the butterfly leg, Beisel switched on her outboard and zoomed away from the field. She finished in 4:31.74, leaving Caitlin Leverenz nearly three seconds behind while bettering her global time by .04 seconds.
“It’s so relieving to have that over and have that trip to London already,’’ said Beisel, who’d be the first American to win the event at the Games since Janet Evans in 1988.
Phelps could have skipped the 400 IM and nobody would have blamed him. He’s odds-on to qualify in the two butterfly events and the 200 IM that he won in both Athens and Beijing and a strong bet in Wednesday’s 200 freestyle, in which he’s ranked just behind Lochte. That’s five events, not counting the three freestyle and medley relays, which Phelps likely will make for the third time.
After his 8-for-8 in 2008, the only achievement still left for him is the record for most Olympic medals by any athlete, which former Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina holds with 18. Three more will put Phelps in a place that nobody is likely to match and which he’s all but certain to reach. So what motivates him is a challenge, and the schedule provided it immediately.
“This is the catalyst for everything else,’’ said his coach, Bob Bowman.
While Lochte easily won the world title ahead of Clary last year, Phelps wasn’t in that race. When they met at Olympus four years ago, Phelps prevailed but Lochte since has been the man while Phelps has labored to regain his gilded form after taking time off.
“Obviously [Lochte] has kind of destroyed me over the last several years at major meets,’’ Phelps conceded.
Lochte knew it wouldn’t be that easy at the trials.
“It’s Michael Phelps,’’ he said. “He will always be there no matter what. He just knows how to race.’’
Lochte relished the prospect of an opening-night mano-a-mano and hoped that Phelps would be up for it. “He will go toe-to-toe with you until the end and that’s excitement for me,’’ he said. “I really hope he does swim that.’’
Phelps had been cagey about whether he’d engage, refusing to say when he’d shave his mustache rather than reveal his plan. But he knew before he arrived here that he’d be all in.
“You guys should have known that,’’ he said after the morning prelims, when he qualified second to Lochte to draw the adjacent lane for the final.
“It’s definitely going to be a dogfight tonight,’’ predicted Lochte, and so it was as the three leaders swapped the lead among themselves.
“All three of us were side by side by side, neck and neck,’’ said Phelps, who was first after the butterfly leg, third after the backstroke leg, and second after the breaststroke leg. By then Lochte was pulling away and Clary, known to be a front-half swimmer, was starting to fade. So Phelps ran him down in the freestyle leg and finished less than a body length behind Lochte, who’d been second to Phelps by exactly the same margin four years ago.
“The first race is always the hardest,’’ said Lochte, who’ll face Phelps at least twice more this week after making his third team. “I can take a deep breath now and relax and whatever happens, happens. I’m just going to go out and have fun now.’’
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.