OMAHA, Neb. — Michael Phelps actually fell behind Sunday night.
In a race he hadn't lost in years.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
But not for long.
In an electric and fast kickoff to the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, Phelps and Ryan Lochte fought neck and neck in the 400-meter individual medley for the night's first spot on the Olympic team.
Two races after Phelps held off Lochte to lower his own world record, Katie Hoff broke a world record in the women's 400 IM. Less than 30 minutes into the meet and two world records had been obliterated.
”Absolutely incredible,“ said Robert Margalis Jr., who was third, seven seconds behind Phelps and Lochte. ”I'm a swim fan, too. That was a fun thing to be a part of.“
Phelps is attempting to qualify for the Olympics in eight events this week. His ambitious program is designed to give him a shot at breaking Mark Spitz's Olympic record of seven gold medals.
Phelps, who owned the world record in the 400 IM at 4:06.22, had never had anyone come within even a second in this race. And in the first 100-meter leg, butterfly, it appeared he would cruise again. But halfway through the second 100 meters, backstroke, Lochte began gaining on Phelps. During the breaststroke portion, Lochte caught him and passed him for a few seconds.
But toward the end of that third leg, in Phelps' weakest stroke, he found a way to keep Lochte close.
”We were dead-even after 300 meters,“ Phelps said.
By the time they reached the wall for the final turn Phelps caught a glimpse of Lochte as he turned underwater. And he thought to himself: ”Whoever stays under the longest is probably going to win.“
Finally, during the last 50 meters, Phelps began to separate, using his ability to block out pain and his smooth freestyle stroke to pull ahead by a torso. After more than three grueling minutes, Phelps touched the wall almost a full second faster than anyone ever had.
He threw a 4:05.25 on the scoreboard overhead. When he looked up and saw it, he thrashed his fist into the water.
”That was probably one of the most painful races of my life,“ Phelps said. ”Everything was left in the pool. I definitely would not have been able to do it without Lochte beside me.“
Lochte finished in 4:06.08, which beat Phelps' previous world record and his own personal best by three seconds.
The 19-year-old Hoff — the former North Baltimore teammate playfully described by Phelps as the little sister he never had — showed no signs of the nervousness that ruined her first trip to the Olympics four years ago. The youngest member of the U.S. team, she was overcome by the moment and threw up on deck after failing to advance from her first event.
Sunday, Hoff dipped under record pace on the breaststroke leg and held on with her freestyle to beat Australian Stephanie Rice's mark of 4:31.46, set in March.
”Stephanie really raised the bar when she broke my old record,“ Hoff said. ”I'm just excited for Beijing, and I think it's going to be a really tough, challenging race with her.“
Like Phelps, Hoff also was wearing the revolutionary Speedo suit, which has been worn for 40 of the 44 world marks set since it was unveiled in mid-February.
”It definitely gave me a few tenths,“ Phelps said. ”At the end, when I was getting a little tired, the suit gave me a little extra edge.“
Larsen Jensen, also wearing the LZR, set an American mark in the 400 freestyle in a three-way race to the wall with previous recordholder Peter Vanderkaay and Erik Vendt.
Jensen's time of 3:43.53 topped Vanderkaay's mark of 3:43.82, set last month.
Christine Magnuson was top qualifier in the semis of the 100 fly in 57.50. Elaine Breeden of Lexington was second in 58.04. Top-seeded Rachel Komisarz, a former University of Kentucky swimmer who trains in Louisville, was third in 58.31.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.