OMAHA, Neb. — Michael Phelps enters Monday night's finals in the 400-meter individual medley seeded second to rival Ryan Lochte after the morning preliminary heats. Phelps' teammate at North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Chase Kalisz, 18, swam to a surprise third-best time in the preliminaries that opened the Olympic qualifying trials here.
"It was all right. It felt fairly relaxed ... The breaststroke was there," Phelps told reporters, referring to the third of the strokes in the medley. "Then I saw Chase and I knew I couldn't let him be anywhere close."
The finals will provide the first head-to-head smackdown that promises to be one of the most intriguing story lines of the Olympics, which begin in London in July: Phelps, the dominant face of swimming and the Games for nearly a decade, will try to cap off his competitive career as challenger Lochte, the laid-back Floridian, tries to grab the golden rings for himself.
Phelps, who turns 27 on Saturday, remains the world-record holder in the 400 IM, the race he vowed never to swim again after the Beijing Games in 2008. But he somehow ends up on the starting blocks again and again, drawing loud cheers and chants from an appreciative crowd at the Century Link center here Monday morning.
He posted a 4:14.72, well-off his 4:03.84 record, but fastest of the preliminary heats. Swimming in the lane next to him, Kalisz came in second at 4:15.78.
Tyler Clary, 23, who said this weekend he expected Phelps to scratch the race, swam the next heat, and put in the third-best time at 4:15.88.
But then Lochte, 27, swimming in the final heat, blazed through his race, far ahead of a pack that included NBAC's Austin Surhoff, son of former Oriole B.J., and Polly, herself a one-time top NBAC swimmer. Lochte finished in 4:10.66 to go into the finals as the top seed.
Breathless after the notoriously taxing race, Lochte said afterward he was "going to have to be a lot faster." Still, he maintained his no-big-deal image.
"For those who know me," he said, "I'm relaxed all the time."