OMAHA, Neb. — Ryan Lochte still has Michael Phelps’ number.
Phelps, though, has put himself in position to go for another gaudy number: eight gold medals at the London Olympics.
Lochte won his latest showdown with the winningest Olympian ever, beating Phelps for the first time in the 400-meter individual medley at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials Monday night.
In taking the first spot on the Olympic team, Lochte extended his dominance of Phelps that goes back to last year’s world championships, where the 27-year-old Floridian won five gold medals and both head-to-head races against Phelps.
“The first race is always the hardest,” Lochte said. “I can take a deep breath now, relax and whatever happens, happens.”
Phelps started strong on the butterfly leg, his best stroke, but Lochte took command when they switched to the breaststroke. He built a lead of about a half-body length and held off Phelps in the freestyle finish, cruising to the wall with one arm extended to post a time of 4 minutes, 7.06 seconds. He got a kiss from his dad, Steve, as he came off the deck.
Phelps claimed the second Olympic spot in 4:07.89, setting himself up for another eight-event program in London — something he insisted he wouldn’t do again after the Beijing Games.
“I was very pleased with that,” Phelps said. “I said if I went 4:07, I’d be happy.”
Tyler Clary, who took second at the 2011 worlds, won’t even get a chance to swim the event in London. He faded to third in 4:09.92 and was so upset he didn’t bother stopping for the media in the mixed zone.
Phelps plans to retire after the Olympics and is clearly eager to end his career with another dazzling performance. He already has won 14 gold medals, more than any other athlete.
That he is even swimming the 400 IM shows Phelps has regained the focus and dedication that faded away after the 2008 Olympics. At those games, he won his second straight gold medal in the grueling race, then insisted he was done with it. Over the past few months, however, he quietly put the event back in his repertoire — and now he’ll be swimming it again in London.
Going forward at the trials, Phelps will be heavily favored to claim a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in four other individual events: the 100 and 200 butterfly, 200 free and 200 individual medley. If he swims on all three American relays, as expected, that adds up to eight — the number of golds he captured in 2008 to eclipse Mark Spitz’s iconic Olympic record.
“Now we kind of know where he is and we feel pretty good about it,” Phelps coach Bob Bowman said. “This is the catalyst for everything else. When this goes well, everything else goes well.”
A Beijing repeat? Could be, though it will be much more difficult to win eight events in London.
Lochte is standing in the way this time.
“Obviously, that’s some pretty good competition,” Bowman said. “He just kicked our (butt).”
Lochte is determined to repeat — even exceed — last year’s brilliant performance in Shanghai, where he surpassed Phelps as the world’s top swimmer. He keeps saying “this is my time,” and his first event in Omaha shows he’s still the man to beat.
“I’m definitely ready to tear it up in London,” said Lochte, who will be heading to his third Olympics.
But Phelps has plenty of room for improvement, according to Bowman.
“His turns were horrendous,” the coach said. “That’s 2 seconds there. His breaststroke leg has got to be better. There are any number of things he can work on.”
Plus, he’ll have plenty of motivation to go faster because of the guy he’s chasing. Phelps is surely getting tired of losing to Lochte, who now has the upper hand in the 400 IM after beating his rival in the 200 IM and 200 free at worlds.
Before Monday, Phelps had whipped Lochte nine straight times in the longer medley race going back to 2002.
“We knew that (losing) was a distinct possibility in this event,” Bowman said. “I don’t think we had any illusions. He knows that he’s in the range. He knows he can get better.”
In other finals on the opening night of the trials, Peter Vanderkaay became a three-time Olympian by winning the 400 free, while 19-year-old Elizabeth Beisel earned her second straight trip to the Olympics in the 400 individual medley.
Vanderkaay won with a time of 3:47.67, while hard-charging Conor Dwyer settled for the second spot on the Olympic team in 3:47.83.
“I just tried to get my head down and get my hand on the touchpad,” Vanderkaay said. “Both Conor and I were able to do that and punched our tickets” for London.
Beisel won her event easily in 4:31.74, more than 2 seconds ahead of Caitlin Leverenz.
“This is definitely a big confidence boost,” the winner said. “Before the race, I was a mess. I was so nervous. I’m so glad it’s over and went well. No complaints.”
Dana Vollmer, a 2004 Olympian who failed to qualify for the Olympic team four years ago, set an American record in the semifinals of the 100 butterfly. The defending world champion put up a blistering time of 56.42 to edge the mark she set a year ago (56.47).
Brendan Hansen also was impressive in the semifinals. The former world-record holder broke a minute in the 100 breaststroke, going into Tuesday night’s final as the top qualifier. Eric Shanteau, who competed in Beijing after being diagnosed with testicular cancer, also advanced.
Lochte and Phelps got a bit of a shock during their race when flames leaped up from the side of the pool — part of the pyrotechnics that organizers put in place to jazz up the event. They were only supposed to go off beforehand, but someone set them off inadvertently while the swimmers were doing the breaststroke.
“I’m like, ‘What’s going on?'” Lochte said with a smile.
But he never slowed down.