RIO DE JANEIRO — In a fit of boredom before the Rio Games started, Ryan Lochte decided to dye his hair light blue. This was a problem. Perhaps Lochte did not realize how this concept known as color works, but naturally brown hair cannot turn any shade of blue without going far lighter first. Lochte settled on one treatment, and the result was a far more appropriate hue: silver.
If one thing has colored Lochte’s incredible swimming career, it wasn’t his fitness or stroke or drive. It was his birthday. Lochte was born Aug. 3, 1984. Three hundred thirty-one days later, in Towson, Maryland, along came a baby named Michael Phelps. Had Lochte come of age at any other time – in the years before Mark Spitz, or the chasm between Spitz and Matt Biondi, or the time between Biondi and Phelps, or in the next generation once Phelps retires – he might have been known as more than a bridesmaid.
Calling Lochte that is unfair. Should he medal in his much-anticipated showdown with Phelps during Thursday’s 200-meter individual medley, Lochte will jump to fourth all-time in Olympic medals won with 12. He is one of three men in the world who can say he won gold in an individual Olympic race prime-era Phelps entered. His career speaks for itself.
And yet the perception of Lochte as perpetual runner-up, eternal second fiddle, Best Actor in a Supporting Role – the silver foil to Phelps’ Midas touch – sticks because it’s true. Of Lochte’s six gold medals, four came in relays with Phelps. In the five times they’ve raced at the Olympics, Phelps has won four – including the last three 200 IMs. Twice Lochte finished second and the other third.
“Any chance I can get up and race Michael, it’s the best,” Lochte said. “ … It’s going to take a perfect performance in order to beat him because of how tough a competitor he is. He won’t give up. That’s awesome. That’s why he brings out the best in me. And hopefully I do the exact same for him.”
They qualified 1-2 in the IM on Wednesday night – Phelps first and Lochte second, of course. The race was a microcosm of their rivalry, with Phelps just a hair faster – 0.02 seconds on the butterfly and 0.25 on the backstroke and 0.22 on the breaststroke and 0.01 on the freestyle. The slimmest of margins, all a quarter second or less in a sport where a quarter-second can feel like a year.
Lochte doesn’t deserve pity or anything. Swimming made him famous. He starred in arguably the worst TV show of all time. (Check that. There is nothing arguable about it.) He is 32 years old, handsome and beloved for his brotastic oafishness, and he’s about to have a baker’s dozen medals if he can hold off Japan’s Kosuke Hagino and Brazil’s Thiago Pereira and maybe, just maybe, Phelps.
He’s not invincible, even if he has looked it in winning three gold medals – his 19th, 20th and 21st, among 25 overall – at these Olympics. Like Lochte, Phelps is approaching the end of his swimming career. The Rio Games could be their swan song. Already both have cut their programs from years past – Lochte is swimming just two races after six in London four years ago – and the prospect of Lochte and Phelps showing up in Tokyo together in their mid-30s isn’t entirely far-fetched. It’s just not terribly likely.
So they’re trying to enjoy this. Phelps and Lochte are roommates, their suite a practical nursing home compared to the lodging that houses their sprightly young teammates. They talk. They play cards. They do everything but talk about swimming. Because to them swimming is a job, a vocation, the kind that can consume a less-disciplined person, and as the old men in the pool they’ve inured themselves against that.
Still, it’s tough not to get caught up in the nostalgia of it all. The two most decorated American Olympians, face to face for what could be the final time.
“I love racing against him,” Lochte said. “Toughest competitor, racer I’ve ever had to go up against. We bring the best out of each other.”
Were that entirely true, Phelps would’ve done everything in his power to keep Lochte from dyeing his hair. Alas, Lochte showed up to Rio with silver, and the chlorine in the pool since has turned it Slimer green. It’s not the best look, but hey: It’s closer to the light blue he wanted.
Eventually, the color will fade and Ryan Lochte will go back to his life of … being Ryan Lochte. And he can deal with that. Perhaps he was born at the wrong time to dominate, but he was born at a perfect time to be great, pushed to the limit by his friend and nemesis all in one, with one race left to give him a reason to dye his hair a new color: gold.
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