OMAHA, Neb. – Swimming splashed its way to a new level of prominence in the American sporting hierarchy in 2008 on the broad shoulders of Michael Phelps.
In a seemingly antithetical plot twist, the sport is bidding for an even larger share of the spotlight this summer because Phelps appears beatable. Compelling as the one-man competition against history was four years ago, a genuine rivalry might be even better.
Enter Ryan Lochte, forever Tonto to Phelps' Lone Ranger in years past. While Phelps was winning a record eight gold medals in 2008, American teammate Lochte was swimming through his wake to finish third in two of those events. In 2004, Lochte was runner-up to Phelps in the 200-meter individual medley. Lochte has won three gold medals in his accomplished career but has never beaten Phelps in an Olympic race.
In Phelps' own words, though, Lochte "kind of destroyed" him several times in races since Beijing. And Lochte enters the U.S. Olympic Trials on Monday seeded ahead of Phelps in four potential showdown events: the 200 and 400 IMs, the 200 freestyle and the 200 backstroke.
"Is Lochte going to play second fiddle his whole career?" NBC analyst and gold medalist Rowdy Gaines asked. "Or is he going to bust loose? I think this is a huge deal for him.
"He got the better of Michael last year [at the world championships in Shanghai], but really, the only thing that counts is the Olympics."
But before the Olympics come the Olympic Trials. Phelps vs. Lochte is the marquee storyline of these Trials, which begin Monday.
Golf thrived for a time with Woods vs. Mickelson. Men's tennis rode Federer vs. Nadal for years. Now swimming could have its own riveting rivalry.
"I honestly think we could change the sport," Lochte said. "There is no doubt in my mind, in the Olympics, it's going to be the biggest talk, me vs. Michael."
To which Phelps says, bring it on.
"I want to change the sport of swimming and take it to a new level," Phelps said. "It's the one thing I've wanted my entire career. Clearly the sport has changed tremendously. … This is something new, being able to have a rivalry of – I don't want to say 'Clash of the Titans,' – but two big athletes, and swimmers.
"It's more than just Ryan and I getting into the pool. We have the rest of the world and the rest of our country to battle as well. … [But] it's been cool just to be able to see how much people are excited for this week and hopefully London."
Phelps stoked anticipation of the showdown by refusing in his press conference Saturday to reveal whether he'd swim the 400 IM, the first event of the meet. The electrifying 1-2 finish by Phelps and Lochte in that event at Trials four years ago jump-started the most memorable summer swimming has ever had, and the thought of Phelps sitting it out was a bit of a downer.
It made sense on one hand – Phelps stated adamantly four years ago that he was done with the 400 IM, which is the hardest race in swimming. If he was going to attempt anything near as ambitious this time around, sitting out the biggest body-wrecker of them all seemed like a prudent choice to save on wear and tear.
But then around mid-afternoon Sunday, Phelps tweeted a picture of himself without the 1800s saloon-keeper mustache he'd been sporting the day before – a clear indication that he was shaving down in preparation to compete Monday.
Game on. The CenturyLink Center should be buzzing Monday night when those two (and potential spoiler Tyler Clary) are expected to meet in the 400 IM final.
"I guess when I look at what they are doing to our sport right now, they are elevating it in ways that I don't think any of us dreamed of," USA Swimming team director Frank Busch said.
Gaines said he expects Phelps to come closer to peak swims in these trials than Lochte, for the simple reason that Phelps might need to demonstrate – to himself and the world – that he's back in top form after a humbling and frustrating past four years. After lacking motivation until the last 18 months, Phelps is trying to show he can still hit the high notes.
"I think he's going to swim really well in Omaha," Rowdy Gaines said. "I think he wants to lay the groundwork and plant the seed in everyone's head. I think he'll be close to several world records, and I don't think Lochte is going to swim as well at Trials as he will at the Olympics."
"They both can make it [to London] but I think Phelps wants to have a good Trials and have it be a great energy booster going into London. I'm not saying he needs to prove anything to anybody. I think he wants to put a bug in everyone's ear: this is what you're going to be facing in London."
After eating Phelps' bubbles in Beijing, the free-spirited Lochte got more serious over the past four years. A notoriously bad eater, he reformed his diet and amped up his training. He even began doing Sunday workouts flipping tractor tires and doing other "World's Strongest Man" stuff in an effort to build muscle.
"Honestly," Lochte said, "I feel like this is my time."
All that stands between him and a potentially Phelpsian medal haul of his own in London is Phelps himself. The greatest of all time.
Let the rivalry commence.
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