By Erik Brady, USA TODAY
OMAHA – A high-rise image of Michael Phelps hovers over these Olympic trials on a hotel building across the street from the CenturyLink Center. What’s missing is a paired image of Ryan Lochte.
Once upon a time, Phelps stood alone. These days, his name flows with Lochte’s as easily as Gilbert and Sullivan — or Ali and Frazier.
Tonight we get Round Two of the slugfest that is Phelps-Lochte — or is it Lochte-Phelps? — when they meet in the finals of the 200-meter freestyle, an event in which Lochte beat Phelps at the world championships in Shanghai a year ago.
Lochte beat Phelps in their semifinal heat of the 200 free Tuesday night, too — by a hair, 1:46.25 to 1:46.27.
“That was semifinals, so it doesn’t really matter,” Lochte said.
Yes, but Lochte and Phelps, in adjoining lanes, swam stroke for stroke to the finish. It looked like it meant something.
“We’re just great racers,” Lochte said. “We just want to win. We definitely kicked it in gear the last 50, me and him, even though tomorrow night, it’s going to be a lot faster.”
For his part, Phelps said: “It’s going to be a tough race tomorrow and it’s probably going to be another close one like that.”
The top two go to the Olympics, so does it matter who wins? “It’s about getting spots on the team,” Phelps said. “That’s the only thing.” Besides, he said, “From here I have three to four weeks to prepare myself and get some extra training in there and it’s going to be a lot better (in London) than it was here.”
Lochte swam twice in the morning preliminaries, posting the best time in the 200 free and second-best in the 100 backstroke. But he scratched from Tuesday night’s 100 back semis to put all of his efforts on the 200 free — and on Phelps. Lochte signed up for 11 events here, but wasn’t expected to swim them all.
Lochte said he consulted with Gregg Troy, his coach, and told him, “I just want to get ready for the 2-free.”
Troy put it this way: “This isn’t about how many we can swim, but how many we can swim really well.”
Lochte swam really well in his Round One win against Phelps on Monday in the 400 individual medley, when Lochte was first to qualify for the Olympic team with Phelps right behind, setting up more showdowns between them in London.
Phelps is potentially in position to try for eight gold medals again, duplicating his other-worldly performance in Beijing, but he was noncommittal about that prospect after his swim in the 200 free preliminary heats.
“The biggest thing is really how I hold up all week,” he said. “This morning felt pretty comfortable, so hopefully we can just keep everything rolling for the rest of the meet.”
Pressed on the notion of another eight-gold sweep, Phelps said: “Anything can happen. You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time.”