London Olympics 2012: Phelps coy about showdown with Lochte in 400 IM

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He even skirted a question about when he would shave his mustache, fearing that would reveal his plans.

“I can’t give that away,” Phelps said. “If I say I’m doing it tomorrow, then you’ll know I’m swimming the 400 IM. If I say I’m doing it Monday, that means I’m not. It will come off when the rest of my body hair comes off.”

Lochte and Phelps will certainly face each other in two of their best events: the 200 IM and the 200 freestyle. Phelps is the defending Olympic champion in both races (a two-time defending champ, in fact, in the medley). But Lochte took them both at the 2011 worlds in Shanghai, beating Phelps by a total of about a half-second and setting a world record in the 200 IM, just to rub it in.

With that triumph still fresh, Lochte is itching to race Phelps as many times as possible in Omaha, starting with the 400 IM.

“He’s the world’s best swimmer ever,” Lochte said. “I love racing against him. It’s fun. He’s one of the hardest racers in the world. He’ll go toe-to-toe with you until the end. That’s excitement for me. I really hope he does swim that.”

Another of the top contenders, Tyler Clary, is also very interested in what Phelps decides. Last year, Clary finished second to Lochte at worlds with Phelps on the sideline, but the dynamic changes if all three are in the event. Only the top two earn spots on the Olympic team.

Asked if he expects Phelps to compete in the 400 IM, Clary replied somewhat nervously, “My expectations are no, but stranger things have happened.”

No matter what happens, the Phelps-Lochte rivalry figures to be the defining storyline of these eight days in Omaha — even at a meet that also features 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin, rising star Missy Franklin, and two 40-somethings taking one more shot at glory, Dara Torres and Janet Evans.

“For so long, it was just him beating me,” Lochte said. “Since 2008, I changed some things in my training and my eating habits, and I’ve gotten a lot faster. Now, especially going into this meet and hopefully London, this is probably going to be one of the biggest rivalries ever.”

Lochte stopped eating junk food — except for an occasional order of potato chips — and added a Strongman-like routine to his weight-training program. He’s noticed a big chance in his practice sessions, finding that where he once was thrilled to put together two good days in a row, now he can go weeks at a time with no letup.

He’s respectful of Phelps, but not intimidated to race against him day after day.

“I love a challenge,” Lochte said. “For me to be in the same era as him, in the same events as him, to be able to race him to the finish, it’s awesome. I love it. I get soooo excited when I’m stepping on the blocks and trying to race him.”

Rest assured, that sort of talk is pumping up Phelps. He seems to hear everything that anyone says about him — Bowman has a lot to do with that — and can turn even the slightest of slights into a reason to go faster.

Heck, Phelps still remembers what former Australian national coach Don Talbot said about him before the 2003 world championships, something about “being unproven on international ground.”

“What did that do? It motivated me,” said Phelps, who at that meet set world records in different events on the same day. “Obviously, it frustrates me sometimes, but I just use that as motivation. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned in my career. I’ve never once said anything publicly about anyone. I never will. That’s how I am. I let my swimming do whatever needs to be done.”

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