CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Michael Phelps easily beat Ryan Lochte in their last race before the U.S. Olympic trials.
Don’t read too much into the results.
Heck, Phelps didn’t win, either.
Ricky Berens beat them both to the wall in the 200-meter freestyle at the Charlotte Grand Prix on Friday night, touching in a relatively slow time of 1 minute, 47.32 seconds. Phelps finished second in 1:48.01, while Lochte was far back in sixth place at 1:49.70.
“We’re all doing different training,” Phelps said. “That’s how (Lochte) has always done it. I’m sure that’s what he’s going to do this year. He’s somebody who’s a very tough racer and, at the right time, he’ll be there when it counts.”
Lochte, in fact, put himself at a disadvantage before the race even started by going with a brief instead of a jammer suit such as the one worn by Phelps. Also, the Floridian is swimming a much more extensive program in Charlotte than his top rival, who only has one more event, the 200 butterfly, before he heads to the U.S. Olympic Committee media summit in Dallas.
Later in the evening, Lochte finished seventh in the grueling 400 individual medley won by two-time Olympian Peter Vanderkaay. Lochte has a few more events in Charlotte before he shuts it down on Sunday, heading back to the sunshine state to get in some serious training before the trials in Omaha in late June.
“None of this is going to matter,” said Gregg Troy, Lochte’s coach. “No one is going to care what happened in Charlotte in another month and a half or two months. So, we’re pretty comfortable.”
Phelps is planning to swim at only one more meet before the Olympic trials. He’ll be spending most of his time in the mountains of Colorado, fine-tuning his conditioning at altitude.
Berens certainly knows that Phelps and Lochte will be going much faster when they get to Omaha. At last year’s world championships, Lochte won the gold with a 1:44.44, edging Phelps by 35-hundredths of a second.
Berens hasn’t come close to those sort of times without benefit of the rubberized suits that since have been banned by FINA, the world governing body. The best he can hope for, it would seem, is to go fast enough at trials to earn a spot on the 800 free relay.
“I have one of the hardest events in the country,” he conceded. “I’ve got Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, who are the two fastest guys in the world and the toughest competition. As long as I’m on the relay with those two guys, I’ll be glad to be on their on their team. As long as I’m part of that relay and winning gold for the U.S., I’m happy.”
All eyes were on Phelps and Lochte as they headed to the blocks, with nearly everyone in the overflow crowd snapping pictures of them with cellphones and tablets. But Berens, a native of Charlotte, had plenty of supporters too.
His plan was to get off to a quick start and try to hold on. It worked out just fine.
Berens was about a half-body length ahead of Phelps at the first turn and never gave up the advantage. Phelps hoped to get a powerful finishing kick off his last turn, but he had trouble judging the wall because of a bulkhead that hangs over the end of the pool. He mistimed his flip, didn’t get the push he wanted and couldn’t quite catch up to the leader.
“I wanted to nail that third wall. I knew that was going to be the difference in the race,” Phelps said. “He probably got me by a couple of tenths on that wall. With 15 or 20 meters to go, I kind of felt like I was reeling him in a little bit. I just kind of ran out of room. I didn’t set myself up to run him down at the right spot. Hopefully, next time.”
Phelps wasn’t sure what to expect after a sluggish showing in the morning preliminaries, when he managed only the fifth-fastest time at 1:51.20.
“I felt awful,” Phelps said. “That was probably the worst I’ve felt racing in a while. But I just tried to come in, loosen up, warm up and get ready. I was a little more awake in the afternoon than I was this morning. I was able to get up and put a good effort in, get out there and race those guys.”
Berens figured it would be easier to hold off Phelps than it would be to catch him.
“Coming into this meet, I really wanted to try to do what I’m going to do at trials,” Berens said. “I knew I needed to get out faster and try to hit that first 100 a little better. I like being ahead.”
But he, too, knew not to put too much stock in winning a Grand Prix meet in May. That was apparent when Lochte stepped up to the blocks in a skimpy blue suit, like a swimmer out of the 1980s.
“At this point in the season, everybody is at a different part of their season,” Berens said. “Someone is a little more tired than the next person. Ryan Lochte is over there racing in just his brief, doing whatever he does. Everybody is in a different place. I’m just excited to be where I am.”
Other winners on Day 2 of the meet: Allison Schmitt in the women’s 200 free; Olympic champion Rebecca Soni in the women’s 100 breaststroke; 2008 Olympian Eric Shanteau in the men’s 100 breast; Jennifer Connolly in the women’s 50 backstroke; Eugene Godsoe in the men’s 50 back; Olympian Dana Vollmer in the women’s 100 butterfly; Davis Tarwater in the men’s 100 fly; Caitlin Leverenz in the women’s 400 IM; Jessica Hardy in the women’s 50 breast; and Barry Murphy in the men’s 50 breast.