By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
On the first day his competitive swimming comeback, competing in the finals of the 100m butterfly, Michael Phelps was in familiar territory. At the turn, Phelps was losing by a quarter-of-a-body length. His rival, friend, competitor, and U.S.A. teammate Ryan Lochte was ahead, barely. The two turned and charged home.
Under the setting Arizona sun, in front of a standing-room-only crowd, Phelps and Lochte battled stroke-for-stroke. Two veterans -- two of the most decorated Olympic swimmers of all-time, two of the most famous names in sports today -- vying for one spot on the podium. Phelps charged. Lochte churned. The crowd, on its feet, screamed. It seemed like old times.
Under the flags, Phelps -- inch by inch – slowly gained water. Like he did in Beijing. Like he did at the World Championships. Like he has done so many times before, in so many important races, in so many 100m butterflies.
At the wall, though, Lochte won, by a hand-length.
It was a historic race. Not just because it was Phelps’ first final in nearly two years. Not just because Phelps returned to the pool after repeatedly vowing he never would. Not just because Phelps and Lochte swam side-by-side, evoking cinematic images of a movie about a sports comeback.
When it was over, fans collected their breath, smiles were abound, and excitement lingered. After two years, swimming has “Phelps vs. Lochte.” It has its own version of “Magic vs. Bird.” And the story of swimming’s most transcendent “rivalry” returns to the pool for one more chapter, one more series of match-ups.
Just like the rivalry between two of the greatest to play NBA basketball, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, swimming has its “rivalry” back. It may not be as cutthroat as “Magic vs. Bird,” but, for competitive swimming in the United States, it could be as transcendent. Not since USA vs. Australia relay match-ups have two entities evoked a more electrifying and media-friendly competitive atmosphere. Not even the USA vs. France freestyle relays stimulate more intrigue than “Phelps vs. Lochte.”
Here’s the thing: Lochte is, perhaps, the only person who can beat Phelps. He’s the only person who can hold off the late-charging Phelps under the flags. He’s the only swimmer capable of taking down the most successful Olympian in history. We saw that last Thursday. We could see it again.
But you can’t have one without the other. Like any great rivalry, you could argue that each swimmer became better because of the other’s existence. Having won 11 Olympic medals, Ryan Lochte became “Ryan Lochte” because of Michael Phelps. And Michael Phelps became “Michael Phelps” because of Ryan Lochte. The two pushed each other throughout their careers. Last Thursday, Phelps hinted at it after his 100m final:
“Being back in the water with Ryan, it’s always fun when we race,” Phelps said. “Neither one of us want to lose to one another, but that’s what makes us swim faster and faster each time.”
So once again, at the Arena Grand Prix at Mesa, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte climbed on blocks Lane 4 and Lane 5, respectively. They dove in side-by-side, turned side-by-side, and charged home side-by-side. This time, Lochte edged Phelps. The race itself doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, but it did set up an intriguing storyline for the remainder of the year. And it did remind us of races we’ve seen before, and hopefully, races yet to come. After the victory, Lochte recalled seeing Phelps at the turn and almost “smiling.”
“Down there at the turn I peaked over, and I almost started smiling,” Lochte said.
“Why, because you were winning? Because you were ahead?” Phelps joked.
Swimming hardly gets media attention between Olympic years. Suddenly, in April, video and TV cameras were everywhere. Swim fans flocked to computers and cell phones. National media descended on those sparkling Mesa waters. With them, they brought a jolt of excitement to a relatively typically calm spring swim season.
“I’m having fun,” Phelps told the crowd at Mesa. “There’s nothing like being able to come here in front of a packed stands.”
And there’s nothing like witnessing two of the most successful Olympians battle side-by-side, once more.
The good news? We will see more battles. That’s not the last time swimming will see “Phelps vs. Lochte”. Though it’s unclear how far Phelps will take his comeback, if Phelps continues to lose to Lochte -- if Phelps continues to barely miss that touch-out-at-the-wall “Phelps Phinish” -- we may see Phelps again in 2016.
But even better for fans, swimming once more has “Phelps vs. Lochte.” It may not be as cutthroat as the NBA’s legendary rivalry “Magic vs. Bird,” but it’s as competitive. Two swimmers. Two of the most successful Olympians ever.
One pushing the other to get better.
And now, once more, the other pushing back.