Reality smacked Michael Phelps in the face again, only this time he accepted it. The 14-time Olympic champion didn't like losing the 200-metre freestyle at the world championships again, even if it was to good pal Ryan Lochte.
But Phelps knows he's got more in him and unlike two years ago, he's willing to put in the work to get there.
Phelps led through the first 100 metres of the most eagerly awaited race so far in Shanghai before Lochte took over on the final turn and held on to win in 1 minute, 44.44 seconds Tuesday.
Phelps settled for silver at 1:44.79, and Paul Biedermann of Germany — who dealt Phelps a stunning defeat at worlds in 2009 — took the bronze at 1:44.88.
"Being able to be a second faster than I was last year and about a second and a half off my personal best time, that's all I can really ask for right now," Phelps said. "That's all I had in the tank."
Phelps has only been in serious training for eight months, having finally committed to making a run at his fourth and last Olympics next year in London.
"That time won't win a gold medal next summer," he said. "I know I can go faster than that."
The Americans' 1-2 finish in the 200 free kicked off a big night for the United States. Rebecca Soni led all the way in winning the 100 breaststroke by 1.20 seconds; Kate Ziegler earned silver in the 1,500 freestyle; and Natalie Coughlin took bronze in the 100 backstroke, giving the Americans nine medals through the first three days of swimming.
Calgary's Jillian Tyler of Calgary was seventh in the 100 breaststroke and Sinead Russell of Oakville, Ont., was eighth in the 100 backstroke.
Two years ago in Rome, Phelps made an unhappy trip to the second spot on the medals podium, having lost the 200 free and his world record to Biedermann, who was wearing one of the now-banned high-tech bodysuits.
"In '09, I was still trying to ride what had happened in '08 even though I had taken six months off," he said. "Right now I know that doing that is not the best thing for swimming. I'm in a better state of mind now than I was in then and really probably better than I ever have been. I'm happy to be back in the water again."
Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, said, "The year I've had, I'm very happy with that."
While Phelps spent a chunk of late 2009 and early 2010 blowing off practice and perfecting his golf game, Lochte was busy gaining on him. Last August, he beat Phelps twice at U.S. nationals and then won six golds to Phelps' five at the Pan Pacific championships.
"I'm definitely a completely different swimmer than I was in 2008," said Lochte, who won four medals at the Beijing Games. "I'm definitely stronger and smarter."
In 2009, Biedermann beat Phelps by more than a second in the 200 free. The German admitted after that race that his high-tech was partly responsible for the upset.
"Is it great to beat somebody who beat you?" Phelps said. "Yeah, it is."
Biedermann's low profile two years ago disappeared when he beat Phelps.
"In '09 I just did my thing. For the moment, now it's more difficult for me," the German said. "The suits helped. No matter what, we are back in jammers now and that's all that counts."
On the podium, Phelps clapped as Lochte stepped forward to claim the gold. Lochte took a bite out of his medal, flashing the diamond "grillz" he had inserted for laughs.
"We bring the best out of each other," Phelps said. "It's going to make the next year more exciting. I know what I need to do."
He and Lochte will duel again in the 200 individual medley later in the meet.
Phelps later qualified third-fastest in the 200 butterfly semifinals, ending his busiest day yet.
The meet has yet to produce any world records, extending the drought that began when textile suits replaced polyurethane suits 1½ years ago.
Soni renewed her rivalry with Australia's Leisel Jones in the 100 breaststroke, and easily came out on top. Ji Liping of China was third, one of three medals won by the host country Tuesday.
"Silver is totally fine by me," Jones said. "Today was a great practice for London."
In the men's 100 back, Camille Lacourt and Jeremy Stravius of France tied for gold, with both touching in 52.76. The bronze went to Ryosuke Irie of Japan in 52.98.
Coughlin led the opening lap of the 100 backstroke before Zhao Jing took over and won in 59.05 as her Chinese teammates banged on drums in the stands. Anastasia Zueva of Russia earned the silver in 59.06 and Coughlin took bronze at 59.05, earning a record 18th medal in her fifth world meet.
Gemma Spofforth of Britain, the defending champion and world record holder, didn't make the final because of food poisoning.
Lotte Friis of Denmark won the women's 1,500 free — a non-Olympic event — in 15:49.59, with world record holder Ziegler second and Li Xuanxu of China finishing third.