The 200m individual medley has always been a special race: It shows off versatility, endurance and the willingness to commit to the grind of training for it.
It’s the place where Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte dueled head-to-head, battling back-and-forth for more than a decade.
It was also the race I was best at, growing up competing as a swimmer for about a decade. Watching them race each other, only sometimes getting caught up in cat-and-mouse games, hearing Rowdy Gaines call those races with such excitement and passion and learning from the pros – that’s what I lived for.
The chance to watch the Greats go after it like that only comes around every four years.
That’s why Thursday night, I took a page out of our National Columnist Joe Ponsanski’s book and threw the rule out about cheering in the press box – or, in my case, the newsroom.
At some Monday night practice in middle school, a coach decided that on Saturday’s meet I would swim the 200m IM – a brand new event for me at a distance I had never competed in. You see, 12-year-olds straddle the gap between 100s and 200s… it can be exhausting.
But it was the race that the superstars did, and I figured I could try it. It was the perfect fit: The coaching staff convinced me (rightfully so, in most cases) that IMs are designed for breaststrokers, as I already was. The summer going into eighth grade, Phelps swept the medleys in Athens and Lochte earned silver in the 200m IM behind him. By the time I got to high school, I had a pretty good thing going. So did they.
Going into my senior year of high school, I woke the whole house up cheering for the incredible 4x100m freestyle relay (sorry, parents). Phelps swept the medleys and Lochte earned a bronze behind him in the 200m IM. I learned the summer before – by out-touching a rival in an upset victory in the 200m IM at the summer league conference championships – that unbelievable finishes were possible: Phelps won the 100m butterfly by 0.01 seconds in Beijing.
In 2012, I was in the room where it happened, working for TODAY and – by some inexplicable magic – got a ticket to the August 2nd finals session. I saw Lochte win two medals in the span of 27 minutes, in the 200m IM and the 200m backstroke. Phelps took his third 200m IM Olympic crown. According to my email to my parents back home detailing my adventures in the Aquatics Centre:
“Then it was time for THE DUEL FOR THE AGES (as I’m calling it, starting now). It was so intense. I couldn’t sit still, but at the same time I couldn’t move. It was INSANE. Phelps—Lochte—Cseh, exactly the same three as it was in 2008. By winning, Phelps became the first swimmer to ever win three golds in a row in the same event at three consecutive Olympic Games. How crazy is that?! The crowd went insane.”
And in 2016, I felt exactly the same way I always have – captivated by the hype and the unbelievable race that unfolded. I held my breath at the start.
Brazil’s own Thiago Pereira held a slight lead in the butterfly leg ahead of Phelps and Lochte; the three athletes were separated by 0.01 seconds after the backstroke leg, all under world record pace. Phelps pulled ahead by four-tenths of a second after the breaststroke leg. Phelps nailed his turn; Lochte lost momentum into the final lap from his last wall. Phelps’ margin of victory was just shy of two whole seconds, stopping the clock at one minute, 54.66 seconds. Japan’s Kosuke Hagino rallied in the last lap for the silver, touching nearly two seconds back. Lochte, still fighting off his third turn, touched fifth – 2.81 seconds off Phelps’ time.
“Winning four in a row, when the announcer said that, I had a really hard time holding it together,” Phelps said in a poolside interview, adding that owning 22 Olympic gold medals is part of his dream come true. The only goal he didn’t accomplish was breaking the world record, set in 2011 by Lochte.
“It’s hard finding different ways to make it fun again. I know that after this – well, now – I’m gonna need some time off. Just a break mentally and physically,” Lochte said after the race. “Who knows, I might be back.”
And watching the race, listening to the roar of the crowd – so loud that Gaines didn’t have a choice but to, as his signature, especially during races involving Phelps, yell excitedly into the microphones – I knew I was seeing the end of the greatest rivalry in swimming.
There’s a poster on the wall of my bedroom at my parent’s house signed by Lochte; it’s probably been there since before he made his Olympic debut in Athens 2004. It shows Lochte underwater, blowing bubble rings and the caption lists his credentials as a “triple short course record holder.”
In the same room, there’s also an oversized blue beach towel I got Michael Phelps to sign after he returned Stateside in August 2008, after capturing an historic, perfect eight gold medals: “To Rachel. Best Wishes. Michael Phelps.”
For the girl whose fondest memory of swimming is winning a bronze medal in the 200m IM her freshman year in the high school county championships, having her coach pick her up and twirl her on deck, you’ll never guess what your job will be in 10 years. It’ll be even more surprising that your idols, now into their 30s, are still chasing their dreams.
Lochte walks away from the 2016 Olympics as the second most-decorated male Olympic swimming medalist of all time with 12 medals, a gold medalist in the 4x200m freestyle relay and still the owner of the 200m IM world record hold. Time to update that poster.
Phelps leaves the 2016 Olympics a newfound family man, continually adding to his career medal count and 22 gold medals, two silvers and two bronzes – so far.
To Michael and Ryan.