San Antonio - Maybe one day they'll learn.
Don't talk trash to Michael Phelps.
It just makes him go faster.
After spending all day digesting Chad le Clos' taunts from halfway around the world, Phelps beat the South African's time from the world championships to win the 100m butterfly at the U.S. national championships Saturday night.
Phelps churned through the water on the return lap, far ahead of everyone, and touched in a dazzling 50.45 seconds.
He was nearly a second faster than his gold-medal winning time at the London Olympics and, more important to Phelps, he went faster than Le Clos' time about eight hours earlier in Kazan, Russia, where he won the world championship in 50.56.
After touching the wall, Phelps turned quickly to see his time, shot a defiant look toward the packed stands in San Antonio, pounded the water with his arms, and spit out a mouthful of water.
Then the 18-time Olympic champion mugged for the cameras, sticking out his tongue.
"The comments were interesting," Phelps said, with a knowing grin. "It just fuels me. If you want to do it, go for it. I welcome it."
Following others such as Milorad Cavic who tried to get under Phelps' skin, Le Clos launched a verbal assault from Russia, apparently confident that he had put up a time Phelps couldn't beat. And, rest assured, this thing has gotten personal, even though they are racing in different worlds and aren't likely to meet until they get to the Rio Olympics next summer.
"I'm just very happy that he's back to his good form, so he can't come out and say, 'Oh, I haven't been training' or all that rubbish that he's been talking," Le Clos said. "Next year is going to be Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier."
Le Clos' father even got in on it, declaring he wasn't even bothering to look at the times Phelps was posting at the junior-varsity meet in Texas, where the winningest athlete in Olympic history was forced to swim after he was banned from the world championships as part of his punishment for a second drunken-driving arrest.
"However fast Michael goes, we go faster," Bert Le Clos said in Kazan. "I don't care about his times, because I know my son is going to beat him."
Phelps responded with his fastest 100 fly ever in a textile suit.
"There are a lot of things I could say. But I won't," Phelps said. "I'm going to let what I do in the pool do my talking."
All of this is setting up a tantalising rivalry for Rio, which actually started when Le Clos stunned Phelps to capture gold in the 200 fly at the London Olympics.
In recent months, Le Clos was a bit miffed when Phelps jumped back into that event with some pointed comments about the times not improving all that much while he was in retirement.
"I don't do it to talk trash," Phelps said. "I do it to state facts. Some people went back and checked my facts about the 200 fly, and I was right. I know my facts about the sport of swimming."
Over the last two days, they went back and forth without ever seeing each other face to face:
- Phelps put up a stunning time of 1:52.94 in the 200 fly on Friday night, the fastest by any swimmer since he set the world record in 2009 in a high-tech bodysuit. Among the times he beat: Le Clos' winning performance at the last Summer Olympics and Laszlo Cseh's upset victory at worlds, where Le Clos was the runner-up.
- Le Clos came back Saturday with his victory in the 100 fly and couldn't resist pointing out that Phelps had not done a time that fast in six years.
- He has now. Phelps responded about eight hours later with the best time in the event since those rubberized bodysuits were banned after 2009, and significantly faster than his 51.21 that was good enough for gold at London.
"I'm doing the work I used to do," said Phelps, who insists he has turned his life around since the DUI arrest some 10 months ago. "It's not rocket science. You have to do the work to get fast times."
Phelps hasn't called out Le Clos by name but made no secret that he wanted to go faster in San Antonio than the winning times in Kazan in his three main races.
Two down, with only the 200 individual medley left on Sunday.
"I have not been that fast in a really long time," Phelps said.
Le Clos implied that it was easier for Phelps to put up fast times in San Antonio because he's not racing the best swimmers in the world.
"Look, I don't want to say it's easy to swim by yourself, but it's a lot harder when you know Chad le Clos is coming back at you the last 50m," Le Clos said. "That's what he's got to think about really."
Phelps shot back, pointing out that Le Clos actually had the faster time on his first lap of the 100 fly.
Which meant, of course, Phelps was much faster on the return lap.
"I just speak the facts and the truth about the sport," he said, getting in one last dig at his rival.