LONDON – Heading into an epic showdown Saturday, Ryan Lochte remains on the Michael Phelps undercard. But from the sound of his brash words on Thursday, he clearly doesn't consider himself an underdog.
Phelps had his own press conference here Thursday with coach Bob Bowman alongside, playing to an auditorium jammed with journalists from around the world. That is standard operating procedure at the Olympics for Phelps; when you've won 14 gold medals, you can have the stage to yourself.
Lochte was lumped in afterward with fellow American swimmers Missy Franklin, Natalie Coughlin and Rebecca Soni. He's 11 gold medals behind Phelps and trying to play catch-up.
But off-podium, Lochte sounded like a guy who expects to own Phelps and the entire Olympic swim meet when it starts Saturday with one of the most anticipated events in Games history: Phelps vs. Lochte in the 400-meter individual medley to start the meet.
The two had three scintillating head-to-head swims in the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha, Neb., last month, with Lochte winning the 400 IM and Phelps winning the 200 IM and 200 freestyle. (Phelps has dropped the 200 free for London, so the duels will only occur in the IMs.) As thrilling as those swims were, Lochte basically said we haven't seen anything yet from him.
"That was just a little appetizer," he said. "This is the big show. I wasn't working for the Olympic trials. I was working for this. I know I can go a lot faster."
Phelps was working for the Olympic trials, still trying to sharpen his game after a reluctant training regimen after his eight-gold-medal tour de force in Beijing in 2008 – an Olympics where he dominated Lochte in head-to-head races. The inference from Lochte: While Phelps was pushing hard in Omaha, he still had more in the tank that he chose not to expend.
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That wasn't the only comment from Lochte on Thursday that hints at his confidence level.
On his mindset in London: "I'm not going for silver or bronze. I'm going for the gold."
On his training regimen since '08, which has included a variety of strongman-style workouts flipping heavy tires and lifting massive chains: "No other swimmer in the world is doing what I'm doing. … I think that's one of the edges I have. All I can say is, look at the last three years. I've gotten faster. … It does give me a confidence boost."
Phelps acknowledged Thursday that winning gold medals in London will "be a lot more challenging" than it was in Beijing. But he didn't become the greatest swimmer in history by backing down from challengers. He said he's ready for Lochte right away, in the first event of the meet, in an event he swore he wouldn't swim again after Beijing – but now here he is.
"There's not a better way in the world than to swim that race first thing," Phelps said.
For him, the four weeks since Omaha have been spent fine-tuning technique and tightening up conditioning. Phelps said repeatedly at trials that he was being "crushed on the walls." That means his turns were inferior to Lochte's, which is a distinct reversal from the devastating wall work Phelps did in Beijing.
Bowman said turns were "definitely" a point of emphasis since Omaha, and he likes what he's seen in that area.
But the 400 IM is the most demanding race in swimming; it is a brutal test of endurance and versatility. A weak leg in any of the four strokes – butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle – can be the difference between gold and silver. Any chink in conditioning could mean defeat in the muscle-burning, oxygen-depleting final 100 meters.
Phelps and Lochte have no noticeable weaknesses. Expect another battle of wills all the way to the final wall Saturday – no matter how much it hurts.
"It's going to be a very tough race," Bowman said. "It's a coach's dream, but also a spectator's dream. Maybe not a swimmer's dream."
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