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 was 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.