LONDON - How was Ryan Lochte able to endure all those years in Michael Phelps' shadow without having his spirit broken? All those huge races in which he was second banana to a man who couldn't be beaten?
For a clue, look at Lochte on the media interview stand after he won the 400-meter individual medley, after spending the previous two Olympics in futile pursuit of the Great Phelps through Athens and Beijing.
The interview moderator sternly warned reporters to shut off their mobile phones. Lochte's phone rang loudly, a Lil Wayne ring tone, and he did what any grade-school boy would do: He blushed, grinned goofily and made silly guilty-kid faces.
If they remake "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," Lochte is Spicoli.
Hey, his favorite movie is Cheech and Chong's "Up in Smoke." Real mature, Ryan.
But it's been a handy survival tool, that joie de vivre or goofball-ness or whatever you call it. A brooder or a deep thinker probably would have fled swimming years ago, cursing Phelps.
Lochte stuck with it, training with a determination and maturity that belies his happy-go-lucky exterior, and now he's the king of swimming. For at least a couple days.
So large was Lochte's second-half 400 IM lead that he sneaked several peeks at the gigantic electronic scoreboard. That's a no-no. If Lochte were 12, he would be sternly scolded by his coach.
If Phelps were the ultimate predator, the greatest big-race performer, Lochte would appear to be a worthy successor. For years, Lochte used those losses to Phelps as motivation. Now, Lochte says he'll use this victory as motivation.
Champions find motivation under rocks.
Of the big win, Lochte said, "It definitely gives me a lot more energy, and I'm definitely going to carry this atmosphere that I created tonight throughout my races."
I didn't know you could carry atmosphere, but Lochte has new tricks.
Phelps has more races ahead, so he's not toast yet -- but he put a lot into this race and came up gasping. He seemed almost in shock.
"It's pretty upsetting," he said.
Give Phelps credit. If he were a medal whore, he would have avoided the race like the Black Plague. It's a trainer's race, and Phelps admittedly squandered two precious years of training. He would have had a much better shot to win a shorter race, especially one not featuring Lochte.
But Phelps signed up, maybe because he knows you don't get the ultimate glory unless you face the ultimate challenge. If you're the greatest, you don't wimp out.
Remember, Phelps said years ago his goal was to change the sport of swimming, and Phelps definitely has promoted and changed swimming.
"We made it on (ESPN's) 'SportsCenter,' finally," Phelps told me a few days before the race. "There've been a lot of changes."
Phelps' greatness elevated the sport, and elevated Lochte.
It's not over. Nobody knows better than Lochte what type of relentless competitor Phelps is. He will not phone in the rest of the meet.
But remember what Lochte has been saying: "This is my time."
"I just know I'm ready," Lochte said two days before the race. "I had a four-year plan, right after Beijing, on getting here. There (were) baby steps, and I completed each task. ... That's why I knew that this was going to be my year. This is the year that I'm putting everything into it."
Four years ago, Lochte ratcheted up his training, adding the element of so-called strong-man training -- tossing beer kegs and flipping giant tires. He believes that gave him a significant edge, physically and psychologically.
We should have seen this coming. Lochte, 28, is almost 10 months older than Phelps, but Phelps is the old-timer and Lochte the eager kid. That couldn't have been more obvious had Phelps arrived poolside leaning on a cane, with Lochte jumping off his skateboard onto his starting block.
"I've felt my age more and more of the last couple years than I ever have," Phelps said a few days earlier. He admitted he wasn't in the shape he was for the '08 Olympics.
One man has one foot in retirement; the other is just getting started.
"I can't put my finger on exactly what it is," Phelps said days ago. "I'm just ready to be done."
"Once I stop having fun with swimming, I'll be done," he said Saturday, "but I don't see that happening anytime soon."
(Contact Scott Ostler at sostler(at)sfchronicle.com.)
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