LONDON – Welcome, swimming fans, to this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this blessed plot, this earth, this pool, this England.
We are preparing for a competition that could be – nay, should be – Shakespearean in scope and grandeur. Drama, tragedy and comedy all shall have their place at The Globe – pardon me, the Aquatics Center – starting Saturday.
The plot lines taking shape:
"Can one desire too much of a good thing?" – from “As You Like It”
This is the query facing Michael Phelps. Already a winner of a record 14 gold medals and 16 total Olympic medals, Phelps is back for his final act as a swimmer. Can he summon a final flourish of greatness on his way to retirement? Can he reach back and relocate the dominance of Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008?
To train or not to train, that was the question tormenting Phelps for more than a year after his epic, eight-gold performance in Beijing. For a long time, the answer was not to train. That left him far behind in his preparation for London – but by the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials last month in Omaha, Neb., he was rounding into champion form. Phelps will swim seven events here, and he would have to be waylaid by foul misfortune to not bring home another big haul of medals – becoming the most-decorated Olympian of all-time in the process. (Current record holder: Russian gymnast Larissa Latynina, with 18 medals.)
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But uneasy lies the head that wears a crown – especially if thou dost try swimming with one. How many of King Phelps’ medals are gold will depend heavily on the outcome of his three rivalry swims with Ryan Lochte …
“Three civil brawls.” – from “Romeo & Juliet”
Phelps and his American teammate, Lochte, had epic showdowns in three events last month in Omaha: the 400-meters individual medley, the 200 freestyle and the 200 IM. Lochte won the 400 IM, while Phelps took the 200 free and 200 IM. The combined time difference between the two in those three events was but a trice: Lochte was .68 seconds faster.
Since then Phelps hath dropped the 200 free from his Olympic program, which means the brawls between buddies shall be limited to the two IMs. They should be among the most compelling races in Olympic history. That it should come to this is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Both men are attempting exhausting, ambitious programs in London. They will push themselves and each other to their limits. Who will win? Doubtful it stood, as two spent swimmers that do cling together.
“Youth, I do adore thee.” – from “The Passionate Pilgrim"
The adoration specifically floweth toward 17-year-old Coloradoan Missy Franklin, the Next Big Thing in American swimming. As Phelps moves into retirement and Lochte into swimming dotage (he’ll be 31 in 2016), Franklin is positioned to become the smiling, fresh-scrubbed face of the sport.
She is a cheerful giant of a girl, 6-foot-1 with size-13 feet, and that length makes her a powerful force in freestyle and backstroke. Franklin will swim seven events – a record for a woman – and should be favored to win gold in the 100 and 200 back (she is the American record holder in both). Franklin doth teach the torches to burn bright.
"For you and I are past our dancing days." – from “Romeo and Juliet"
Two American heroes of Olympics past barely made the team as relay members this time around. Age, with his stealing steps, hath Natalie Coughlin and Jason Lezak in his clutch – but can they summon the dance moves of 2008 and deliver a big moment for those relay teams here?
The 29-year-old Coughlin hath won 11 Olympic medals but couldn’t make the U.S. team in an individual event this year. She qualified as a member of the 400 freestyle relay, an even the Americans haven’t won at the Olympics since 2000. The Dutch are the reigning world and Olympic champions and will be difficult to beat. The question is whether Coughlin – a famous gamer who didn’t finish races well in Omaha – is part of the championship final or just swims a prelim.
[ Photos: Michael Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte ]
Lezak was an American hero in Beijing, having rescued the men’s 400 freestyle relay from near-certain defeat at the hands of the French with what might have been the greatest anchor leg in the history of the sport. That also kept alive Phelps’ eight-gold-medal quest. This time around Lezak is 36 and the Americans are solid underdogs to the Australians – it could be a fight just to hit the podium. Nevertheless, the rascal hath good mettle in him. Don’t count Lezak and the Yanks out.
"Thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges." – from “The Taming of the Shrew"
Phelps has at times led a charmed Olympic life, and at no time more than in the 100 butterfly in Beijing. That’s the race he won by the narrowest of margins – one-hundredth of a second – over Serbian/Californian Milorad (Mike) Cavic, a result that defied the naked eye in real time.
Cavic is back for London, and at the European Championships in May posted a time that is just .31 slower than Phelps’ winning time at the Olympic trials in June. Cavic worked brazen mind games on Phelps in Beijing, and the friction between them next week could be on the Montague-Capulet level.
But Cavic is not the only butterflyer gunning for Phelps in an almost disdainful fashion. American teammate Tyler Clary, runner-up to Phelps in the 200 fly at trials, piped up afterward about the champion’s sketchy work ethic when both were training at Michigan several years ago.
"I saw a real lack of preparation," Clary said. “The fact that I know I work harder than he does makes me appreciate … every little gain I make."
The lad doth protest too much, methinks. Clary would be better served following Henry V’s adage, “Men of few words are the best men.” The Olympic rookie might try shutting up until he actually beats Phelps – but there is now a lively undercurrent to what has been Phelps’ signature race.
"Be not afraid of greatness.” – from “Twelfth Night"
If Phelps does not win the 400 IM on Saturday night, Japanese breaststroker Kosuke Kitajima will have a chance the following night for his place in history. Both men are seeking to become the first swimmer to win the same event in three straight Olympic Games, and Kitajima is chasing a three-peat in both the 100 and 200 breast.
The world is Kitajima’s oyster – he owneth the fastest times of 2012 in both events. He will be chased by American Olympic veterans Brendan Hansen and Eric Shanteau in the 100, and by American Olympic rookies Scott Weltz and Clark Burckle in the 200. If anyone beats Kitajima to the wall in either event, it will be a remarkable upset.
“In the East my pleasure lies.” – from “Antony and Cleopatra"
Kitajima is not the only Asian-born swimmer who will command the stage at London’s aquatic theater-in-the-round – or rectangle. Freestylers Sun Yang of China and Park Tae-Hwan of Korea will be strong favorites to win gold medals, and both could take home multiple medals in distances ranging from 200 to 1,500 meters. After some breakthrough men’s swims in Beijing, Asian swimming looks even stronger four years later.
"This is the very ecstasy of love" – from “Hamlet"
America’s swimming power couple, breaststroker Rebecca Soni and freestyler Ricky Berens, will both be competing in London. Soni is a strong medal contender in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke – she’s the defending champion in the latter – and she could be on the American 400 medley relay as well. Berens took Phelps’ spot on the American roster in the 200 freestyle and also will be on the 400 and 800 free relays.
How many medals can one couple win? We’ll find out. But all’s well that ends well.
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• Ryan Lochte seen 'cozying up' to Aussie swimmer Blair Evans