Michael Phelps, 14-times Olympic gold medal on the way to his London 2012 swansong, contemplated the status he loathes: "Silver Medallist" read the sign in front of him as he explained why he had lost a world-title bout to his American shadow.
Gold in a boiling world-title 200m freestyle race that saw five men race inside 1min 45sec for the first time in swimming history, including shiny suits banned since last year, went to teammate Ryan Lochte in 1:44.44. The silver lining for Phelps, on 1:44.79 was a 0.09sec defeat of Paul Biedermann, the German nemesis in a blue rubber suit who had crushed the Olympic champion with a 1:42.00 world record in Rome two years ago. The sheen on the bronze for Biedermann's coach Frank Embacher was the obvious room for improvement to move his charge on by London 2012.
If the result read 'Lochte, Phelps, Biedermann', the pure swim speed count read 'Biedermann, Phelps, Lochte', was the take of the race by Embacher, who back in 2009 put the speed of a suit at a significant 0.7sec a length in a race that forced the international federation's arm on non-textile materials. Bob Bowman, coach to Phelps, declared that his boy, the most successful Olympian ever and biggest draw in world swimming, would not be back in the water unless the rubber had a bullet sunk into it. A day later the date of death was issued: January 1, 2010.
Talk of the king being dead (more polite questions talked of a "change of guard") this evening is wildly premature (not to mention inaccurate) but Lochte, 27 next Wednesday, not only proved for the first time in world-level racing that he has the speed and skills to beat Phelps but showed that he knows how to do it. Playing cat to mouse for the first half, he pounced at the mid-way by doing to Phelps what Phelps is used to doing to others: he tore rocketed off the wall and gathered momentum and roared 0.91sec faster than his teammate down the third of four lengths.
The game was up. Four men, including Biedermann, Olympic silver medallist Park Tae-hwan, of Korea, and French teenager Yannick Agnel, second at the last turn, scrambled for the spoils but the long arm of Phelps was not to be denied, 0.2sec splitting the four who followed the leader home for the fastest top 5 finish in the history of the event.
Lochte once referred to Phelps as "the best" but tonight chose these words: "He's one of the best in the world. It's great to get a US 1-2. Whatever the outcome, we are still going to be friends and be pushing each other all the way to London 2012".
On his tactics, he added: "Going into an event like that, everyone just wants to go out hard and get clear water. As long as I could stay with him [Phelps] I knew I had a shot." Bowman was there to confirm that the killer sting was the second turn and the splits reflected as much in a final that was every bit as thrilling as its billing suggested:
The last on the list was the only national record among the five. More to come from the French teenager, with Park in fine form and Sun Yang (CHN) yet to turn his gaze their way should he be so inclined.
"Ryan has been remarkably consistent at the top level and he's such a great racer," said Bowman. "He knew exactly what he needed to do. When Michael went out fast, he basically went with him. That's what he had to do. I thought he played that exceptionally well."
Lochte put his condition down to diet. Former US national teamster Ed Moses had encouraged him to stop eating junk food. "Eating healthy has made a big difference," said Lochte. "It played a big part in my win tonight."
After making the cut for the 200m butterfly final, Phelps was asked about the "challenge" from Lochte. "I'm getting killed," he said. "It's all my fault," said Phelps, who has made no secret of the fact that since winning an all-sports record of eight golds at the Beijing 2008 Games has lacked motivation and not put in the training needed to keep him on top. "With the training that's happened over the last six to eight months, that's all I had in the tank," he said of the freestyle final before admitting the mistake that cost him the return of a title he won in 2005 and 2007: "I let Ryan get away too much on the third 50. That's something I shouldn't have done."
When asked to assess his charge's performance, Bowman said he was "very happy about everything about it", on strategy, stroke, the "real improvement he's made after the last couple of years" and the fact that Phelps "finished with some real heart" in common with his fellow hunters. The midway turn lost Phelps the race, while Bowman's eye saw that "he caught up on everyone at the end".
A tricky one to judge simply off splits but there was a moment at about 20m out when it looked like Phelps was fourth and in danger of fading. The alchemy of turning that into silver required a deeply dogged determination, a quality that has shone in Phelps but of late had deserted him at a time when he needed to ease away from the cutting edge of steely excellence after a decade of blade-running like none before.
Was it useful to have a swimmer beaten a year out from the Olympics? Bowman said: "I think it could be, particularly if they do well but there's something left."
Asked by an American reporter about the Biedermann drubbing of 2009 and if it felt 'great', Phelps replied: “Is it great to beat someone who beat you? Sure it is.” But all would have to be much faster for London 2012, Phelps and absent Australian Ian Thorpe, back in the race pool on the cusp of a pre-Olympic Christmas, the only two men to have ever dipped below 1:44 without suit assistance.
"I'm coming back around to where I'd like to be, actually in the race, involved in the race and not just getting destroyed every time I'm in the water," said Phelps. "Just really being able to come in and race is something I'm very pleased with. Being able to be a second faster than I was last year and about a second-and-a-half off my personal best time was all I can really ask for right now. I just think I'm in a better state of mind now than I was then and really probably better than I ever have been. I guess that I'm happy to be back in the water again."
"I've had that feeling the last six to eight months but before that I probably haven't had that feeling since '08," he added. "I think I know where I can get and I think I know what it takes to get back there. I know I can go faster than that. That's not even a question. I know what I need to do. That's sort of the bottom line."
Biedermann has found his bottom line too, a base from which to now work towards London 2012. "It was a tough race. I think this has the potential to be an Olympic final. It was very close. I lost a lot at the start and the turns and that's something I will now work on. Now it's time to get ready for the Olympics and every day counts."
The countdown begins tomorrow - a year to the day before the start of the Games in the British capital.