ROME, July 30 — Having for years competed in many of the same events as Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte is used to standing a step lower than Phelps on the medal podium.
Lochte finally got his chance for glory Thursday night in the final of the 200-meter individual medley, with Phelps taking a break from the event after dominating it for six years.
Lochte, however, still had Phelps’s legend to contend with.
What would a mere victory mean with the great Phelps watching from the stands, wearing sunglasses and no shirt?
Lochte solved that problem by touching the wall in 1 minute 54.10 seconds, not only claiming the world title but also surpassing Phelps’s world record of 1:54.23.
And — this must be noted — Lochte achieved the dual victory at the swimming world championships in the same suit Phelps wore at last year’s Olympic Games when he set the previous mark.
“I love it,” Lochte said. “I love the challenge. Everyone complains about all the new suits, blah, blah, blah. I go out there wearing the same suit that’s been out there, and I just give it to them.”
Lochte, 24, a surfing aficionado from Daytona Beach, Fla., certainly gave it to Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh, a seemingly perennial second-place finisher who came home in 1:55.24, and fellow American Eric Shanteau, who grabbed the bronze in 1:55.36 — then came back later and qualified for Friday’s final in the 200 breaststroke.
And Lochte gave it to Phelps, too.
Lochte admitted smiling to himself after spotting Phelps on the giant screen at the Foro Italico, sitting with the U.S. team.
“It feels good to do that; at the same time, I wish he were swimming,” Lochte said. “I love the challenge, and I love racing against him. He is one of the best swimmers ever.”
Lochte can be sure he will face Phelps in the event again — next year, in fact. About a minute after Lochte finished, Bowman, also the coach of the U.S. team and therefore standing on the pool deck, got a text message from Phelps.
“He [wrote], ‘That was a great swim,” Bowman said. “ ‘But I think it’s still breakable.’ ”
Phelps sat out the grueling 200 and 400 medleys this summer to focus on a smaller program of speed events. But Phelps’s coach, Bob Bowman, said Phelps would begin training again for the 200 medley this fall.
Bowman not only lauded Lochte for the performance, but also for his choice of swimwear. As 29 world records have fallen here in the last week, including 7 of 7 in Thursday’s finals, virtually all have come by swimmers wearing the latest 100-percent polyurethane suits. Many have also been accompanied by extraordinary drops in times.
“That was a great swim, the way a world record should be broken, by a tenth and by dropping your best time by five-tenths” of a second, Bowman said. “He did it in the same suit as last year. We like that.”
Phelps and Lochte have competed in the older-model Speedo LZR. The world governing body has banned all long-length, non-textile suits for next year.
Shanteau claimed his first world championship medal less than a year after undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous testicle, and is also a medal favorite in the 200 breast.
“The title of cancer survivor is great, but it’s not the only one I want to have,” said Shanteau, who also posted the second-fastest time (2:07.42) in the 200 breaststroke semis. “It’s nice to have my swimming catch up with the cancer part.”
In the race, Lochte got under world-record pace at the 100 mark and didn’t relent.
“It felt great,” Lochte said. “I made my best time; I can’t complain. I went out as fast as I could and hung on for dear life.”
Notes: After Phelps lost the 200 free Tuesday to a German who dropped four seconds in the event in one year, Bowman said Phelps would not compete again internationally until a pending suit ban is in place. Despite criticism for the comments, Bowman did not back off. “I had to make my point, and the point was made,” he said. “This isn’t a polite issue. We did politeness for a year and a half.” ….. Brazil’s Cesar Cielo set a world record with his victory in the men’s 100 free, finishing in 46.91 seconds to eclipse Australian Eamon Sullivan’s mark of 47.05. France’s Alain Bernard came home in 47.12, followed by Fred Bousquet in 47.25. “I’m very happy,” said Cielo, who trains under Auburn Coach Brett Hawke. “It’s a dream come true.” American David Walters finished fifth in 47.33, but broke Phelps’s American record (47.51) in the event. Said Walters: “It’s good, but back to the suits: You kind of have that [issue] in the way.” ….. After failing to advance to the 100 backstroke final after misjudging his place in the semifinals, Aaron Peirsol didn’t take any chances in the 200 back semis Thursday, posting the fastest qualifying time and breaking the championship record with his finish in 1:54.06. Japan’s Ryosuke Irie finished second in 1:54.14. ….. The U.S. women’s 4×200 relay team of Dana Vollmer, Lacey Nymeyer, Ariana Kukors and Allison Schmitt finished second to China in a race in which both squads went under the world record set by Australia at last year’s Olympics. China finished in 7:42.08; the U.S. team in 7:42.56. The old mark was 7:44.31. ….. Amanda Weir twice lowered the American record in the 100 free Thursday, breaking Natalie Coughlin’s mark (53.39) with times of 53.20 in the morning heats and 53.02 in the night’s semifinals. ….. After setting the world record in the 200 butterfly in the heats Wednesday, American Mary DeScenza finished fourth in Thursday’s final in 2:04.41 — 0.27 of a second slower than her world-record time. She lost the record, anyway; Australian Jessicah Schipper got the gold in 2:03.41.