Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte were sitting side by side Thursday as they had so many times at news conferences just like these -- Phelps talking about his gold medal and Lochte talking about next time.
What was different is there is no next time, not for Lochte vs. Phelps. One needed only to listen to Phelps to understand this was their final showdown. He had beaten Lochte and the Olympic field, somewhat handily, in the 200-meter individual medley for gold. Yet his tone was conciliatory bordering on sentimental. And Phelps was trying, rather successfully, to compliment who had become his biggest rival.
"I may have been lucky Ryan had a 200 back 20 minutes beforehand," Phelps said. "Ryan can probably swim faster than I did tonight. I'm sure you will see him swim a faster time over the last four years. I was lucky enough to get the medal."
This almost made it worse, not because it was fake, but rather because it was the truth. The better swimmer has been Lochte this last four years, certainly he was the more dedicated. He was lifting tires while Phelps smoking out post-Beijing. Lochte had crushed him at Worlds. He had declared again and again this was "my time," a phrase again repeated after he opened this Olympics with a gold medal and victory against Phelps on Day 1.
The inclination is to rip into Lochte for this and mostly for failing to live up to self-created hype(1). Actually what Lochte deserves is partial credit, credit for Phelps being back, credit for Phelps having 20 medals, for going out like he is. Lochte was willing to tug on Superman's cape, back when doing so seemed futile and slightly dangerous.
In a time when no one gets in the face of sports greatness, pokes it in the chest and says 'I am coming for you', he did. He did, even though it is hard and scary and so much easier to say appropriately deferential things before and lose graciously afterward.
This is what Michael was saying Thursday when he called Lochte one of his biggest competitors. He understands that guys like Lochte made him better. In many ways, Lochte helped get him here and it was here in London that we were reminded of Phelps' greatness -- by people like Lochte who struggled under the weight of what Phelps made look so easy in Beijing and by nights like Thursday.
On a day when Gabby Douglas stole hearts and became America's sweetheart by winning all-around gymnastics gold, let us not forget Phelps.
Please say hello to America's reigning bad ass a couple of more times before we have to say goodbye.
Phelps has done something in London, insane even by Phelpsian standards. He has gotten stronger and faster as this meet has gone on, quite a feat because of (a) the rigors of his program and (b) how poorly this all began for him by failing to medal in 400IM.
Many proclaimed him done, or fatigued, or just coasting to a weak finish as a result, which is why what he is doing now is so impressive.
He crushed that 200IM on Thursday, did a little cool down, a little medal ceremony -- his 20th -- and then jumped back in and crushed a 100 fly heat setting himself up perfectly for Friday's final individual event.
He has two swims remaining before retirement, and in my very amateur swimming opinion, Phelps basically told himself there is no way he was going out this way, failing to medal and being out-touched. He wanted 19 and history. He wanted to be the first male swimmer to win the same event at three consecutive Olympics. He wanted to leave on his terms. He wanted to beat Lochte, and he appears to be doing so on guts and anger at being counted out.
In this way, if we go back to the idea that styles make fight, Lochte was the perfect foil for Phelps. His style is to take insults perceived and otherwise and use them as fuel while Lochte's is to be brash and braggy which can often be perceived as slights.
They were a perfect pair, always were and were again on Thursday.
Lochte's is not as easy role to play, the guy who keeps taking on Superman and losing. At this level, the thought of finishing second, even to a friend, has to churn at your insides.
It did for Lochte. It is why he was the perfect rival.
And there is a difference between being a perfect foil and a rival, between being a good sport and a good loser, and Lochte was the former even if they found themselves back on the same stage yet again Thursday playing their usual roles when the moderator announced that Lochte had to go.
"He's done (swimming). Why does he have to leave?" Phelps said. "I have two more races. I got to go."
The moderator excused Lochte anyway.
"Thank you, Ryan."
Actually, it should be the other way around.
Notes: (1) Fail and all of its derivatives (failing, failed failure). It is important to point out he failed only by a definition only he and Phelps operate under.