Ryan Lochte, not Michael Phelps, poised to rule pool in London

Chris Chase
Fourth-Place Medal

In nearly any other Olympics, Ryan Lochte would have been a breakout star. But even though he took home two golds and two bronzes in Beijing, the effort was pedestrian in comparison to Michael Phelps and his eight golds in eight events.

The roles could be reversed next year in London.

In the three years since the 2008 Games, Lochte has emerged as the preeminent swimmer in the world, quietly wresting the title away from a struggling Phelps. Though Lochte likely won't match his rival's historic eight gold medals, he will enter London as a favorite to become the most decorated swimmer at the Games. Either way, he'll be one of the most entertaining.

Lochte once hurt himself break dancing. Another time it was playing hide and seek. He wears green Martian shoes while accepting gold medals. And he has the laid-back attitude and California good looks (odd, since he's from New York) that scream surfer, not swimmer. Young fans adore him, women swoon over him, men want to hang out with him. He's a four-quadrant success.

It's no different in the pool, where Lochte is considered the premiere medley swimmer in the world. He broke a 20-race individual medley losing streak to Phelps last year and capped it off with a double in the 200 and 400 meters at the Pan Pacific Championships. In December, Lochte became the first swimmer to set a world record after the ban on hi-tech bodysuits when he broke the short course 200 and 400 IM records in Dubai. He can hold his own in single-stroke events, too. In London, Lochte is set to defend his title in the 200 backstroke. And earlier this week he upset Phelps in the 200 freestyle at the world championships in Shanghai.{YSP:more}

While Phelps has been in a swimming funk since the 2009 world championships, Lochte hasn't slowed. In 2010, he won 12 golds in 13 international races and was named FINA's male Swimmer of the Year.

When people started to say Lochte was the best swimmer in the world, it was more a knock on Phelps than anything. Now it's the undeniable truth. Even Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, couldn't disagree. "Obviously, Ryan Lochte is the best swimmer in the world this year," he said in 2010. "No question."

That's the caveat, though. Last year. Winning short-course titles in Dubai in 2010 has little bearing on what happens in London in 2012.

It was never in Phelps' plan to peak in the middle of the Olympic cycle. When you win eight gold medals at the Olympics, gearing up for Pan Pacs doesn't provide the same motivation. His eyes have been set squarely on London since he stepped out of the pool in Beijing.

Lochte didn't have that luxury. London has always been the big circle on his calendar, but it was to be the culmination of four years of improvement. Whereas Phelps can justify a subpar performance at this week's world championships with the consolation that it's not the Olympics, Lochte needs a dominant performance. It's part of the plan.

He'll be a big deal in London regardless. (In Beijing, he was more like an indie star.) The media loves him and NBC will be sure to hype him endlessly. Lochte is everything Phelps isn't in an interview: engaging, self-deprecating and animated. His frat boy tweets should provide Bob Costas with some good culture clash fodder. ("Jeah" and "banana hammock" are two favored terms.) If Phelps became a superstar in spite of his public persona, Lochte will thrive in the role because of his.

If Lochte duplicates his program from this week's world championships, he'll swim six events in London. The total may go higher depending on his training over the next 11 months. Things have a way of quickly changing in the pool, but for now, at least, Lochte would be favored in each of those events.

However, there's still that little matter of Mr. Phelps. He's the greatest swimmer of all time and it's just as likely he's been playing possum for the past two years rather than engaging in any real struggles. Lochte won't care. Everyone in the pool says they're not afraid of the man who dominated the sport like no one else in history. Lochte may be the only one who actually believes it. More importantly, he's the one who can back it up.

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