Phelpte shows glimmers of former glory

The U.S. national championships have been a disappointing meet for fans of Phelpte, the Michael Phelps-Ryan Lochte rivalry. (Also known as Phlochte, which sounds better.)

Anyway, Phelpte, Phlochte, it boiled down to the same thing: Phelps finished second in the 100 butterfly, perhaps his signature event; sixth in the 100 back and seventh in the 100 free. Lochte was second in the 100 free and third in the 200 back.

The only time the old rivalry kicked in was in the 200 IM, in which Lochte bested Phelps, with both posting among the fastest times in the world this year. They didn’t race next to each other, however, in the center of the pool, eyeballing each other as they used to, matching stroke for stroke, breath for breath. Instead they were in outside lanes, where mere mortals dwell.

"I guess we can say this is kind of our off-year," Lochte said of himself and Phelps. "Well, I can say that." (Love Ryan, and the way he can defer to Michael in friendship while still holding his own.)

Bottom line: They qualified for the Pan Pacific Championships this month where anything can happen. But it’s not quite the same, is it?

There’s been much talk about both being on the comeback trail, Phelps having grown tired of retirement (boring, isn’t it, when you don’t really have anything to do) and Lochte coming back from a knee injury sustained improbably – or maybe not so improbably when you’re Ryan Lochte – as an overly excited teenage girl ran into him. But face it, they’re not kids anymore. (Phelps is 29, Lochte a year older.) And the young guns are coming on strong.

Much has been written, too, recently about the roles that talent and practice play in performance, with the Malcolm Gladwell types coming down on the side of single-minded preparedness while others think it’s all about talent.

I think you have to strike a balance between both. But talent, especially physical talent, is not forever and no amount of preparedness can stave off that reality. Still, when I think of Phelpte – along with Derek Jeter and other senior members of my beloved Yankees, whom I must write about sometime – I think of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which ends with these words:

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Certainly, Lochte’s not yielding. He took the medal stand in shimmering green high-tops with wings, as if he were Mercury, the fleet-footed messenger god.