US Olympic Trials, Omaha, Day 3 Finals:
Michael Phelps refused to yield under unrelenting pressure from Ryan Lochte in a 200m freestyle final that ended 1:45.70 to 1:45.75 in the Olympic champion's favour.
The world champion, who defeated Phelps in the 400m medley on the first day of action at trials, fought tooth and nail but could not crack Phelps this time.
The splits compared:
The 0.05sec by which Phelps led at 150m remained at the end, the 0.08sec advantage of Lochte at the first turn the biggest gap in the race between the top two.
Neither of the times come close to the 1:44.42 with which Frenchman Yannick Agnel holds the helm of the world rankings but Phelps, coached by Bob Bowman in Baltimore, said he felt "crunched" on each turn (too tight to the wall) and had "lots of things I can improve on".
As he spoke to the media he was struggling to catch his breath, somewhat taken aback by "the slow times". The time was off but the intensity of the battle with Lochte is immense. So much so that neither can afford to have their eye and form solely on trials here.
When this show is over on Monday next week, focus will turn to the main prize in London. If the resolve was there tonight, expect a sharpening of form and speed by the time the Americans clash once more in the British capital.
In the wake of the clash of titans came Ricky Berens, on 1:46.56, and Conor Dwyer, on 1:46.64, their relay berths assured. Matt McLean, 1:46.78, and Charlie Houchin, 1:46.88, may serve as back-up supporting the two big multi-medal chasers on the US men's team.
Asked by Summer Sanders deckside how he managed to come back time and again, Phelps started with a laugh: "So old … it's tough and I think just be able to get in water and race these guys motivates me. Every time it comes down to the touch and [turning to his teammate] you guys make me go faster and faster."
On the same question, Lochte said he could back-up in races by "just getting up and doing what I do and loving what i do. It's a pleasure to be on the team with them. Team USA is going to win it up in London."
Cue crowd roar. It got a touch louder as local man Dwyer said: "Its my first time its an honour to be on the relay."
Berens gave him a peek of what was to come: "Walking out with Phelps and Lochte on your team … you're not as nervous but just pretty fired up."
The show on a roll after world textile bests by Missy Franklin and Matt Grevers and an upset victory for Breeja Larson in the 100m breaststroke, the swimming spectacular fit to teach the world lessons like Phelps has taught us where the sport can go was not yet over. The 14-times Olympic gold medal winner walked out for the semi of the 200m butterfly, the crowd still bouncing to the beat of Van Halen's "Jump".
Tyler Clary had set the pace at 1:56.85 in the first semi. Phelps, the pioneer who since 2001 has made the 200m butterfly his signature, turned third at the last turn. And that is where he stayed. In 1:56.06 Bobby Bollier got the touch ahead of Davis Tarwater, on 1:56.10, Phelps on 1:56.42, tight but his mission accomplished in victory and qualification on the day.
Many interpretations will follow. Here's mine: the man is not fully tapered. Expect more - come the swansong moment.
Update: Coach Bob Bowman later revealed that Phelps, down from his last altitude camp in Colorado Springs, was "finishing everything well, altitude gives you that" but was "not particularly sharp - I like that". Taper is yet to come.