OMAHA, Neb. -- If there's one thing missing from the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials, it is perhaps one final head-to-head battle between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, arguably the two greatest American male swimmers of all time. And based on the preliminaries of the 200-meter individual medley Thursday morning, the hope for that showdown is still alive.
Lochte, swimming with a groin he injured during the breaststroke leg of the 400 IM on Sunday, turned in the fastest prelim time of the morning, at 1 minute, 58.05 seconds. He said he tried to alter his breaststroke kick to minimize the discomfort but felt the pain on the first kick of the breaststroke leg.
"I was like, damn it," he said. "But it's a good morning swim."
After the race, Lochte hobbled through the mixed zone but told reporters he felt fine. When one suggested he was lying, Lochte replied, "I know."
Phelps, one day after qualifying for his fifth consecutive Olympics, celebrated his 31st birthday by winning the final heat of the event in a time of 1:58.95. Only Lochte, who swam in the previous heat, had a faster time. "I probably didn't warm down enough last night. I didn't really sleep last night," Phelps said. "But I said I wanted to go 1:58 so that's good."
Phelps said he woke up at 5 a.m. Wednesday unable to sleep and starting "firing texts" to his coach, Bob Bowman. "He pretty much said shut up and get ready for this morning," Phelps said. "So I went to sleep for a few hours and came over."
When asked what he was doing to celebrate his birthday, Phelps laughed. "I'm not," he said.
Both swimmers will compete in the semifinals of the event Thursday night, in separate heats. The finals are scheduled for Friday night.
The list of the top 10 performances ever in the 200 IM is filled with only two names: Lochte and Phelps. They each have five spots on the list, with Lochte the world-record holder. The two have not raced against each other in the 200 IM at a major international meet since the 2012 London Games. Phelps won that battle in a time of 1:54.27.
Last summer, when Phelps was suspended from world championships for his September 2014 DUI arrest, Lochte won gold with a time of 1:55.88. Phelps responded at U.S. nationals in San Antonio by swimming the event in the fastest time in 2015, 1:54.75, the eighth-fastest time ever.
Earlier this week Phelps scratched the 100- and 200-meter freestyle events to focus on the three events in which he had the fastest times in 2015: the 100- and 200-meter butterfly and the 200 IM.
Lochte, 32, has already qualified for the U.S. team in the 200-meter freestyle relay. The 200 IM is his last chance to make the team in an individual event, as he scratched the 200-meter backstroke earlier Thursday morning.
"I did what's best for me," Lochte said.