With respect to the hundreds of elite swimmers descending on London this week, the 2012 Olympic swimming competition will be all about two men: Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
Or is it Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps?
The American nemeses are locked in a two-man battle for the unofficial (yet genuinely applicable) title of World’s Best Swimmer, and their head-to-head showdowns in London will largely decide who secures that crown.
Let’s take a look inside their budding rivalry.
Hometown: Baltimore, Maryland
Height / Weight: 6'4" / 185 lbs
College: None (trained at University of Michigan)
Coach: Bob Bowman
Olympic Appearances: 2000, 2004, 2008
Olympic Medals: 16 (14 gold, 2 bronze)
Career Achievement: Set an Olympic record by winning eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games
Named Swimming World Male Swimmer of the Year In… 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009
Strongest Strokes: Butterfly and Freestyle
Signature Race: 200-meter butterfly
Lesser Known Fact: Phelps has never attended an opening ceremony.
Hometown: Daytona Beach, Florida
Height / Weight: 6'2" / 185 lbs
College: University of Florida
Coach: Gregg Troy
Olympic Appearances: 2004, 2008
Olympic Medals: 6 (3 gold, 1 silver, 2 bronze)
Career Achievement: Contested five events and won five gold medals at the 2011 FINA World Championships
Named Swimming World Male Swimmer of the Year In… 2010, 2011
Strongest Strokes: Backstroke and Freestyle
Signature Race: 200-meter backstroke
Lesser Known Fact: Lochte is just the fourth man ever to appear on the cover of Vogue.
Barring some wildly improbable qualification letdown, Phelps and Lochte will swim against each other twice in London. Those events are:
200-Meter Individual Medley
Phelps’ Personal Best: 1:54.16
Lochte’s Personal Best: 1:54.00 (World Record)
Phelps Medal Breakdown: 4 World Championship medals (3 gold, 1 silver), 2 Olympic medals (both gold)
Lochte Medal Breakdown: 4 World Championship medals (2 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze) 2 Olympic medals (1 silver, 1 bronze)
Most Recent Head-to-Head: Phelps bested Lochte by 0.09 at U.S. Olympic Trials
400-Meter Individual Medley
Phelps’ Personal Best: 4:03.84 (World Record)
Lochte’s Personal Best: 4:06.08
Phelps Medal Breakdown: 3 World Championship medals (all gold), 2 Olympic medals (both gold)
Lochte Medal Breakdown: 3 World Championship medals (2 gold, 1 silver), 1 Olympic medal (bronze)
Most Recent Head-to-Head: Lochte beat Phelps by 0.83 seconds at U.S. Olympic Trials
Come on, he’s Michael Phelps. The man is Olympic clutch.
You think that’s going to change in London?
The best big-race swimmer of all time was on something of a training hiatus from Beijing through the 2011 World Championships, but he’s fully re-engaged for what he says will be his last Olympic meet.
Phelps has already made up some of the ground he lost to Lochte over the last three years, beating his rival in the 200-meter individual medley at the U.S. Olympic Trials after he’d lost the same event to Lochte at 2011 Worlds.
With another month of focused training under his belt, Phelps should be able to make up the lingering gap between the two in the 400 IM (an event in which he still owns the world record).
Phelps also has the scheduling advantage. Whereas Lochte will come into the 200 IM having contested the 200 back final earlier that same evening, Phelps should be finals fresh for both showdowns.
And if both races come down to the final stroke—as many expect they will—who are you going to take: the guy with six Olympic medals or the guy with 16?
Phelps has spent months preparing for London.
Lochte’s been at it for years.
The former Florida Gator is a conditioning freak, renowned for the strongman-style dry-land workouts that his strength coach mandates. Though his schedule isn’t favorable, Lochte may be the only swimmer alive who can handle such rigors.
Plus, there’s anecdotal evidence that Lochte wasn’t fully tapered for U.S. Olympic Trials. In plain speak, that means Lochte hadn’t reached the arc in his training cycle that would have produced optimal results.
Or in even plainer speak, Lochte could be a lot better in London than he was in Omaha.
Then there’s the matter of confidence. Lochte hadn’t beat Phelps at a major meet before 2011. He did it twice at that year’s World Championships and again at this year’s U.S. Trials.
Perhaps he wasn't racing against the best possible version of Michael Phelps, but there’s no underestimating the psychological advantage gleaned.
In addition to his swims against Lochte, Phelps will contest the 100-meter butterfly, 200 fly, 4x100 freestyle relay, 4x200 freestyle relay and 4x100 medley relay. Phelps is favored to medal in all seven events, which would give him an Olympic record 23 medals for his career.
Lochte will swim the 200-meter backstroke, 200 freestyle, 4x100 freestyle relay and 4x200 freestyle relay. Lochte could also earn a medal in the 4x100 medley relay by participating in a preliminary heat, but he’s unlikely to swim the event final.
If Lochte medals in all six events as expected, it would be the seventh most successful single Games performance by an American athlete.