A Battle of Titans: The Men’s 200 IM, Shanghai 2011

Courtesy: Corey He

Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, two of history’s greatest swimmers, are the role models of age-group swimmers across the world. Their head-to-head battles in the individual medley events are well chronicled and entertained swimming fans for more than a decade — across the span of four separate Olympic Games.

It’s hard to say which one of their head-to-head battles was the best, partly because they had so many. But today, we zone in on one of their most historic showdowns: the historic 200 IM matchup from the 2011 World Championships. Let’s start with some context.

Just three years prior, on his way to an epic eight-gold-medal Olympic performance in 2008, Phelps set a new world record in the 200 IM, turning in a time of 1:54.23 and lowering his previous world record by six-tenths of a second. He was wearing the latest Speedo LZR Racer bodysuit — with engineering input from NASA — that had been released in February 2008.

The 2009 year brought a new wave of pure-polyurethane bodysuits — including the “Arena X-Glide” — that were rumored to be even faster than Speedo’s 2008 bodysuits. And the results showed: the 2009 World Championships in Rome saw some of the fastest swims in history — among them, Paul Biedermann’s world records in the 200 freestyle (1:42.00) and 400 freestyle (3:40.07), both of which still stand today.

At these same 2009 Worlds, it was Lochte who emerged victorious in the 200 IM, touching in a time of 1:54.10 and taking a full tenth off Phelps’ world record from the previous year. Phelps did not race the 200 IM in 2009.

The “super-suit” era came to an end after the 2009 World Championships, with FINA instituting new regulations that limited men’s racing suits to the jammers that we see today. During the super-suit era, a combined total of over 100 world records — across men’s, women’s, long course, and short course swimming events — had been broken.

With super-suits now out of the picture, the swimming world seemed to take a step backward. To many, the pre-2010 world records seemed completely unbreakable — or at least borderline untouchable for the next few years.

Then came the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai.

Earlier in the meet, Lochte had out-dueled Phelps in the 200 freestyle, though Lochte’s winning time was nearly 2.5 seconds slower than Biedermann’s world record from 2009. Ironically, Biedermann was also in this same race: he won the bronze in a time nearly three seconds shy of his 2009 record. And that was the expectation: it would take quite some time for the swimming world to catch up to the super-suited benchmarks.

But hold that thought. Just two days later, Phelps and Lochte would face off yet again in the final of the 200 IM. Cue the fireworks.

At the halfway mark, Lochte turned slightly ahead of Phelps, though they were both three-tenths shy of Lochte’s 2009 super-suited world record. At the conclusion of the breaststroke, and with just 50 meters of freestyle to go, they were still three-tenths off of the mark.

The two superstars made a mad dash for the finish, going nearly stroke for stroke and pushing each other all the way to the end of the race. Phelps dug deep and crept up onto Lochte’s shoulder, though Lochte fought back and just barely held him off.

To the amazement of the swimming world — and the absolute shock of swimming commentators — Lochte had turned in a time of 1:54.00, slicing a full tenth off of his own record that he had set in the now-banned super-suit (and almost posting the first sub-1:54 swim in history).

It was the first world record to fall in 19 months.

Phelps also raced his way to a personal best, touching in a time of 1:54.16 — faster than his winning time from the 2008 Olympics. The two of them finished over three and a half seconds clear of the bronze medalist, Hungarian Laszlo Cseh — a familiar opponent.

In doing so, the two superstars had ushered in a new era of post-super suit swimming. They had proven to the world that the pre-2010 world records were not invincible.

The 2011 World Championships would see just one other world record fall: China’s Sun Yang would establish a new mark in the 1500 freestyle, though that previous world record was set back in 2001 by Australian legend Grant Hackett, which occurred before the age of Speedo LZR Racers and Arena X-Glides.

Following their legendary 2011 showdown, Phelps and Lochte would face-off a few more times in the 200 IM, though neither would ever swim as fast as they did that night in 2011. Phelps came close in 2012, winning Olympic gold in 1:54.27 ahead of Lochte; Lochte would turn in a time of 1:54.98 at the 2013 Worlds, defending his world title from 2011.

And now, nearly 15 years on, the only swimmers not named Phelps or Lochte to remotely come close to these benchmarks are China’s Wang Shun and France’s Leon Marchand, who have reached benchmarks of 1:54.62 and 1:54.82, respectively.

In many ways, that 200 IM world record from 2011 is easily one of the most unbreakable records still on the books. A truly remarkable performance by two legends of the sport — and a mind-bending performance that truly pushed the boundaries of what is humanly possible.

With all this in mind, perhaps we can take away one lesson: tech suits aren’t everything…

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26 days ago

I think it’s a bit of poetic justice that despite spending so many years swimming in Phelps’ shadow that Lochte is the only one of the two who still has (and likely will after this summer) an individual long course World Record.

2011 Lochte was one of the best single-meet performances in swimming history. Two of these times would still very likely win gold this summer, over a decade later.
1:44.44 200 free
1:54.00 200 IM
1:52.96 200 back
4:07.13 400 IM

27 days ago

Hoping we get a battle between Marchand and Shun in Paris like the Lochte/Phelps battles of old, and one of them can get pushed to a 1:53

Last edited 27 days ago by dirtswimmer
27 days ago

For me, I’ve never seen a prettier swimmer than Ryan Lochte doing an IM. I hate to see that record fall, but I think it will in Paris.

Reply to  Iceageswmer
27 days ago

Don’t think it falls in Paris tbh I think Leon goes around a 1:54.2 and just missed it but breaks it in the next quad

28 days ago

I think calling the 200 free in 2004 race of the century is wrong.
Probably the 2008 4×100 free in Beijing is the true race of the century for male swimmers. But when talking about an individual race I think this 200 medley in Shangai is higher on the list than that 200 Free in Athens 2004

Reply to  GrameziPT
28 days ago

Maybe swimswam should do a Top-20 best race in this millenium (2000-…) for male and for female swimmers. Two separate lists. And then let swimswam readers vote to choose the best ever for male and the best ever female race. The engagment would be nuts

Reply to  GrameziPT
28 days ago

Would you rank them based on the actual outcome of the race, or the expectation of the quality at the time?

The 200 free in 2004 was given that moniker before the race, while the 400 free relay became an all-time great after we all watched it happen (but still had high expectations before). The names in that race are unbelievable. Thorpe, PVDH, Phelps, Hackett…I mean there was a depth to that event, a generation v generation, that was unlike almost anything we’ve seen.

The 200 IM had a great 1-2 of Phelps and Lochte, and Cseh was not far off (though he wasn’t particularly close in the outcome).

But then after that you’re comparing Keller and Hackett in 4th… Read more »

Reply to  Braden Keith
27 days ago

Braden I think it’s always going to be subjective and that’s what makes it fun. To me the mano-a-mano in Xangai is up there in terms of best ever. But probably the Cavic vs Phelps in Beijing is the top one for a lot o people. For me in 2011 we weren’t expecting a WR in the 200 medley and for me the Lochte vs Phelps rivalry is the best one (surpassing Phelps vs cavic vs Chad or Crocker). So for me personally that 200 medley is probably the best. I think in a top 20 there can be some races based on time, some based on the outcome and some based on expectation. The 400 free relay produced back-to-back-to-Back-to-Back… Read more »

I miss the ISL (Go dawgs)
28 days ago

Ironic that this article just made its way back onto the top of my SS feed the same day that all the info about China’s scheme comes out.

28 days ago


Sacre Bleu!
28 days ago

One of my favorite swimming races ever.

1 month ago

Who “forgot” this race? And how many MP articles do we need in a 24 hour period?