Recapping what we learned from a huge night from Omaha at the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials:
Michael Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte in London is must-must-must see TV. Both sides of what already shaped up as the biggest head-to-head rivalry in the Games have pooh-poohed the importance of victories over the other in Omaha -- Phelps recently called Trials a "baby step" -- but all the evidence you need to know how badly each wants to beat the other was Phelps' extended underwater glances at Lochte during the turns of their 200-meter freestyle showdown. During those moments, it was clear that Phelps wasn't worried about his time, wasn't worried about London, wasn't worried about anything other than getting to the wall before Lochte did.
And in the end, that's exactly what Phelps did, though because this is Lochte it took a last-gasp come-from-behind push to touch him out by all of five hundredths of a second--the sort of ending that, if repeated in London, would immediately go down alongside Phelps' epic touch-out of Milorad Cavic in Beijing in the U.S. Olympic scrapbook. "Baby step" or not, this was two of the world's best athletes going after each other tooth-and-nail, and calling it "thrilling" doesn't do it justice.
Multiply a race like this by the raised stakes and even greater determination both will find in London, and you're looking at what could be the defining moment of the Games.
The torch has been passed among American women. If that seems like too grandiose a pronouncement for one race, consider that the 100 backstroke final itself seemed too neat, too perfect from a symbolic standpoint, too much like something out of an script. 29-year-old Natalie Coughlin, the dominant American female swimmer of the past decade, and 17-year-old Missy Franklin, the U.S. star of the future suddenly turned its star of the present, coming out of the turn in a dead heat in the same event where Coughlin has won the last two Olympic gold medals. Ever since her three golds at last year's world championships, the assumption has been that Williams would go into London as the unquestioned face of U.S. women's swimming. If Coughlin was going to have any say about that -- if she wanted any part of the same spotlight she enjoyed in Athens and Beijing -- she had to win those last 50 meters.
She didn't. (To be fair, after barely making the final, she wasn't supposed to.) Franklin pulled away, won the race by more than half a second, and to add insult to injury broke Coughlin's American record in the process. In those 50 meters Coughlin's era came to its close; with her first Olympic berth clinched, Franklin's era begun. As those kinds of demarcations go, it couldn't have been tidier.
That doesn't mean we won't see Coughlin in London. She could still qualify in the 100 freestyle, could still make the U.S. relays. But it's officially Franklin's show now.
U.S. hopes in the 100 backstroke are in good hands. Matt Grevers said after swimming a 52.94 in the 100 backstroke semifinal that he was pleasantly surprised with himself. So we're guessing he's a good deal more than that -- we'll go for "elated" -- after swimming 52.08 in Wednesday's final, the best time in the world this year by more than six-tenths of a second. It was Grevers who claimed silver in the event in Beijing behind U.S. world record-holder Aaron Peirsol, and with Peirsol retired, the gold is up for grabs. By coming within .14 of Peirsol's record, Grevers showed he should be the man to take advantage.
Two London favorites might be vulnerable. Possibly. Maybe. Rebecca Soni has more-or-less owned the breaststroke ever since her surprise gold medal in the 200 breaststroke in Beijing, but couldn't quite catch a visibly stunned Breeja Larson in the 100 breaststroke Wednesday, finishing second with a time .07 behind Larson and a pace slower than her semifinal time. She'll still enter London as the favorite, but her surprising lack of explosiveness down the stretch makes the 200 breaststroke at least a shade more interesting.
We can't even really go that far for Phelps in the 200 butterfly, an event he hasn't lost in a major international meet since 2002 according to NBC's broadcast team, even after he finished in third in Wednesday's semifinal heat. Phelps had already exerted himself in the 200 freestyle and knows that no matter what lane he swims in the 200 butterfly final, he should be able to win handily--meaning he had things in the cruisiest of cruise controls. Still, it was jarring to see Phelps (who has dusted fields like Wednesday's while in cruise control with regularity, particularly in this event) glide in behind two other swimmers.
We won't believe he'll place anywhere but first in this event in London until we see it, but maybe -- maybe -- there's the tiniest glimmer of hope for the rest of the world, at least until Thursday's final.