- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2012

Michael Phelps wasn’t even supposed to swim in this event. After winning eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, Phelps said he was forever dropping the grueling 400-meter individual medley from his program. But four years later, he stood at the base of the starting block at the 2012 Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., preparing to take it on again.

To his immediate right stood Ryan Lochte, the up-and-comer who has been Phelps‘ biggest threat since they left Beijing.

Separately, they represent one-half of the biggest rivalry in swimming, possibly the entire 2012 Olympic Games. Together, they are the future of the sport to which they’ve devoted their youth.

With his Florida Gator-blue capped head lowered as he shook out his pre-event jitters, Lochte paid no mind to the banners displaying his name in the stands directly behind him or to the posters heralding his face.

Right next to him, Phelps‘ ears were still swallowed up by enormous red headphones. He didn’t hear the PA announcer call out his name or the cheers from the raucous crowd of 13,000 strong.

Not more than five minutes later, the race would be finished, the first spot on the U.S. Olympic swim team won. But the race — and their relationship — always had been about more than just winning.

“[I think it is] probably going to be one of the biggest rivalries ever,” Lochte told reporters two days earlier. “I honestly think we could change the sport.”

They dove in.

One more chance

Fifteen-year-old Michael Phelps was the youngest swimmer on the 2000 U.S. Olympic team by almost two years. The naive teenager, who even forgot to tie his suit before an event, failed to medal in his first international trip. But as his coach Bob Bowman put it, they were just happy to be there.

That Phelps is a long-faded memory.

Now 27, he announced shortly upon returning from Beijing that he will retire once this year’s Olympic Games are over. Phelps will put to rest a career that has earned him 16 Olympic medals, six current world records and international fame.

Expectations are high for Phelps after Beijing. His are even loftier. And though he declines to specify them, Phelps still has dreams he wants to realize.

“There comes an end to everything, and for me and my career, I never want to look back and say, ‘What if I did this one way and that one way?’” Phelps said. “I want to do everything I ever wanted to do before I retire.

“Two years after Beijing it was pretty clear that I wasn’t doing everything that I could do.”

Phelps hit a rough patch in the months following his rise to superstardom in 2008. After a photo in which Phelps appeared to be smoking marijuana was published in 2009, USA Swimming handed its golden boy a three-month suspension.

At the 2011 FINA world championships in Shanghai, Phelps saw routine success. But others, Lochte included, began catching up.

So Phelps has spent the past year and a half zeroed in, preparing for the end of a 16-year career.

He will swim seven events in his fourth and final Olympics and needs to medal in just three to become the most decorated Olympian of all time. He also will have four chances to become the first Olympian to win the same event (200 IM, 400 IM, 100 fly, 200 fly) in three straight games.

But even if he falls short of those ambitions, the contributions he’s already made to the sport can’t be erased. Phelps said he’s spent his career trying to take swimming “to a new level.”

As far as one U.S. Olympic teammate is concerned, Phelps has achieved that goal.

“He is a huge part of the reason that swimming is what it is today,” Brendan Hansen said. “He broke barriers and walls for us that I don’t think any other athlete could have ever done … he put swimming in superstar status.”

New kid on the block

It’s almost impossible to pass a magazine stand without seeing Ryan Lochte’s face on the cover. That’s because USA Swimming’s new “it” boy finally decided to stop spending his career in the shadows.

Lochte will compete in his third Olympics and try to add to his six medals. He won two gold medals in Beijing, setting a pair of world records in the process.

But he still wasn’t satisfied. When he arrived home from Beijing, Lochte made drastic lifestyle changes and adjusted his training routine. He’s increased his weight training, even engaging in strongman competitionlike workouts. He cut out junk food. Right away, he saw it pay off in the pool.

Like a masochist, Lochte thrives on having nothing left to give after a workout. It’s those kinds of results that have allowed Lochte to approach this year’s games with a different mindset. He refuses to be second-best.

“I feel like this is my time,” Lochte said. “Whenever I go on the blocks, no matter what it is or who it is, I always feel like I can win.”

There’s a reason for that unabashed confidence. In Shanghai last year, Lochte took home five golds. He beat Phelps and set the world record in the 200-meter IM.

His recent rise to stardom has been helped by cover stories and photo shoots for Vogue, Men’s Health and GQ magazines. He’s done commercials for Gatorade and Gillette.

But despite Lochte’s recently found fame, with the potential for more after the 2012 Olympics, that’s far from his biggest motivator. Instead, it’s just a welcome byproduct of doing what he loves.

“Once I start thinking about the money, thinking about how many golds or medals, that’s when I feel like swimming will probably no longer be fun for me,” Lochte said. “I told myself I’ll quit swimming once I stop having fun, and right now I’m having a blast.”

Their worlds collide

Phelps is sure to experience obstacles as he attempts to make Olympic history in the final swim meet of his career. But expect the biggest of them to be his teammate.

Phelps and Lochte have been squaring off since the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and Phelps always had had the upper hand.

That has changed.

Phelps conceded that Lochte has “destroyed” him in major meets lately. Lochte is hoping to see similar results in London. Both have said they don’t pay attention to what the other is doing; that the only things they can control are their own races. Simply watch them swim against each other to see that’s far from the truth.

Ryan and Michael, when they’re next to each other, they are so focused on racing each other,” Bowman said following the 200-meter freestyle final at the Olympic Trials. “Tonight, Michael got ahead and he was like, ‘Well, I’m ahead of Ryan, I’m OK.’ And then Ryan is just waiting to make his move. And he makes his move, and they do the cat-and-mouse stuff, and in the process of that they forgot to swim fast.”

Lochte’s coach, Gregg Troy, channels the rivalry-induced pressure into a motivational tool.

“Two of the best ever go head-to-head, they’re both in their prime. One guy is going to win, and one is going to lose,” Troy said. “It makes you realize where you’re at. You can’t get comfortable and overconfident at this level.”

Phelps and Lochte are not the best of friends. Not by any means. But the respect they have for one another’s ability shines with every midrace glance across the pool.

Sometimes when they’re not swimming, Phelps and Lochte will pair up for a game of spades, often taking on Olympic teammates Cullen Jones and Ricky Berens in friendly competition.

But once they return to the pool deck, it’s back to business.

“When Ryan and I get in the pool, sure, I don’t want him to win, he doesn’t want me to win,” Phelps said. “But out of the pool … we can joke around and have fun and we can relax. It’s kind of like when we step on the pool deck, that’s our field — our battlefield.”

A bright future

In typical Phelps fashion, he jumped out to an early lead in the 400-meter IM at the Olympic Trials, leading after the first two laps. After all, the world’s most famous Olympian isn’t completely satisfied unless he can set the pace.

But just like he’s been doing for the past four years, Lochte, a “back-halfer,” caught up.

The heat from the flames shooting up around the perimeter of the pool deck was palpable. The crowd roared as Phelps and Lochte went stroke for stroke approaching the final 100 meters.

In a moment that defined the rest of the trials, and likely the future of the 2012 Olympics, Lochte took a lead in the freestyle he wouldn’t relinquish. For most of the last length, Phelps swam at Lochte’s feet, taking in the unfamiliar sight of someone else between him and the wall at a race’s end.

“[He is obviously] great competition,” Bowman said after the race. “He just kicked our [rear].”

It would be the only head-to-head matchup he took from Phelps during the Olympic Trials, as Lochte came in second to Phelps in the 200-meter IM and the 200-meter freestyle finals in the days that followed.

But by snatching the first Olympic team spot from the hands of a guy who’s not used to coming in second, Lochte forced the swimming world to pay attention. Lochte’s words proclaiming it was “his time” could no longer be shrugged off as unproven arrogance.

“Does it bother me? If it does, it’s used as motivation,” Phelps said about his rival’s outspoken confidence. “I let the swimming do whatever talking it needs to, has to, will do. … That’s how I’ve always had my career, and that’s how I’m going to finish it.”

After a quick handshake following Lochte’s victory, the two hung face to face on their shared lane rope, eyes glued on the scoreboard above. Lochte raised his hand to acknowledge the cheering crowd as his name was again announced over the public address system. A straight-faced Phelps looked on, ripping the goggles off his head.

Phelps and Lochte will race again in the 200- and 400-meter IM in London. The world will be watching. Because when those two swim, everybody benefits.

“Because of who Ryan is and because of who Michael is and because of what they have accomplished, there has never been this much exposure for swimming,” U.S. Olympic team member Tyler Clary said. “Would I be sitting here without what those two have done in the past? I don’t know.”

The Phelps-Lochte story will end before the London Games come to a close. The final chapter likely will be one of them standing on the tallest platform with “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing in the background.

But there’s also another story caused by all the commotion; one about a sport forever changed by an attention-grabbing rivalry.

And that tale is just beginning.