MESA, Ariz. — Given the history of the two sharks involved, dragging anything less than their currently available ‘A’ games into the pool was out of the question.
But the competitive history of Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte also provoked a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that they renew their Team USA rivalry within the ironic context of a lesser race during Thursday night’s Arena Grand Prix session at Skyline Aquatics Center.
Phelps, on the cusp of his first competitive race in 20 months, said Lochte joked about tanking their respective preliminary heats just to see how much interest they could generate while participating in the C-level race.
"I was like, ‘No, let’s try to get in the big final,’" Phelps said after his first race since the 2012 London Olympics.
Despite both swimmers being at less than full, awe-inspiring capacity, the level of energy around the pool was evidence that this showdown would have rocked even had it been held in an irrigation ditch.
"I think it’s great for our sport," Phelps said of these up-close battles co-starring some of the world’s greatest swimmers. "There’s nothing like being able to come here and swimming in front of packed stands, fans cheering us on. Obviously, being back in the water with Ryan is always fun."
Although the 28-year-old with a record 22 Olympic medals was experiencing a newcomer’s exuberance, he didn’t exactly tuck his competitive fire into a corner of the attic.
"I’ve been saying this whole time … I’m having fun," Phelps said, "And I really do mean that."
Final-round fun meant clocking the fifth-fastest long-form 100-meter butterfly time (52.13) on the planet this season. That’s quite a bit lighter than his world-record time of 49.82 — and a bit off the 51.93 Lochte posted to defeat him Thursday.
Lochte’s time sits at No. 2 in the world this year.
Phelps, who came up just short of victory despite a strong finish, has seized the last three Olympic gold medals in the 100 fly and has struck gold 18 times.
"I’m my hardest critic, so I know what I can do there," he said.
Lochte, who has five gold medals in the bank, took control during the first 50 meters.
"Down there at the turn, I kind of peeked over and saw him (Phelps) and I almost started smiling," Lochte said.
"Why?" Phelps said. "Because you were ahead?"
When braced, once again, about attempting another Olympic push, Phelps kept dodging.
"Well, my mother keeps saying, ‘No, no, no, no," Phelps said.
But swim fans — and perhaps the pull of competition — seem to be saying "Yes, yes, yes."