Ryan Lochte will head into the weekend knowing that one more big stand will deliver a fifth gold medal, the 400m medley, on Sunday, the event in which he need not defeat Michael Phelps in person to prove himself the best, though the Phelpsian clock is yet to be beaten.
Phelps wore a leg suit with 50% poly panels in Beijing on his way to one of the most extraordinary of world marks - 4:03.84 - on the books. It was an effort that left Laszlo Cseh and Lochte reeling, the rest in danger of demotion to the ranks of Shanghai's boiled dumplings, the term used hereabouts for leisure swimming because the pools are so crowded that there's standing room only for those looking to cool down).
Lochte, coached by Gregg Troy in Florida, will not need to get to Phelps of 2008 to prove his worth in a week in which he has crashed through the shiny suits barrier, over 200m medley, and shown himself the supreme racer of the year on his way to winning the 200m free, the 200m backstroke and, straight after the latter today, helping the US 4x200m free relay to victory, his ace the hand that grounded Gaul in silver.
"When Ryan is hot right now you don't want anyone else on the end of the relay," said Ricky Berens, third man in for the Americans after Peter Vanderkaay had followed Phelps on a day when he served to make coaches think again.
"They were talking about me swimming the last leg," Vanderkaay recalled. "I said, 'Are you sure you don't want Ryan on that?'"
“There’s two guys you want to have at the end of a relay, Michael and Ryan,” Berens said, while Phelps added later: "There's no-one you want more than Ryan at the end of a relay."
Lochte and Phelps sat at the press conference table sharing jokes and unable to stop giggling at the fun an oddity of it all as questions came thick, fast and incomprehensible for the Chinese quartet alongside them.
Lochte has four golds with one to go, Phelps two gold and two silver, with two more chances to come in the 100m butterfly and the 4x100m medley.
They may not think in terms of changing of guards, particularly not when seated next to each other as relay teammates (in an event that the US has not lost at any level since Thorpey and Hackett were on their blocks together for Australian and able to keep the US at bay in Barcelona, 2003), but others do. Take Tyler Clary, third in the backstroke today, who said: "If you go by medals alone . . . it’s a definite changing of the guard. 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." Indeed so.
Phelps hags got the message, for self and team: "Obviously, I would have liked to have swum a little faster in the leadoff. 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.”
Lochte has played his role as new king of the waves charmingly, the locking of horns left in the water. "I have a lot of confidence, especially after what happened last year," he said. At the Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine, California, he claimed six gold medals. Confidence gained may be doubled and dangerous for Phelps' swansong ambitions. Said Lochte: "I still have one more [individual] race left to finish off this meet, then, after that, get ready for 2012."
The dynamic building for London's Zaha Hadid-designed Aquatics Centre is monumental, more promise for the pantheon as the likes of Lochte, Phelps, Magnussen, Thorpe and those who guide them head to 2012 intent on drawing aquatic lines that have got to be, to borrow a line from the genius of Kate Bush, an architect's dream.
Here's the painting the teams have painted for themselves in Shanghai so far, with 2 of 8 days to go in the race pool:
TOTAL 29 25 27 81