Ryan Lochte: Why He'll Steal Michael Phelps' Thunder

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Ryan Lochte: Why He'll Steal Michael Phelps' Thunder
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In the 2012 Summer Olympic Games swimming competition, Ryan Lochte will generate a larger fan base than his fiercest rival and fellow American, Michael Phelps.

Phelps went eight-for-eight in gold medals at the 2008 Games in Beijing, which raised his all-time gold count to 14. At the same time, Phelps established himself as arguably the greatest swimmer ever.

At age 27, though, Phelps’ made-for-swimming body might have seen its best days. Adam Hadhazy of scientificamerican.com describes Phelps’ physique like this:

“There’s his proportionally longer ‘wingspan’…Phelps’s arms extend 80 inches (203 centimeters) tip to tip, and his body measures in at 76 inches (193 centimeters) in height. Most of the time, a person’s height normally corresponds closely to the distance between his outstretched hands…Maybe this extra reach gave Phelps that narrowest of victories against Serbia’s Milo Cavic in the 100-meter butterfly final on [Aug. 16, 2008] when the American won by just one one-hundredth of a second. Phelps is also said to be double-jointed…His size-14 feet reportedly bend 15 degrees farther at the ankle than most other swimmers, turning his feet into virtual flippers. This flexibility also extends to his knees and elbows, possibly allowing him to get more out of each stroke.”

Physician H. Richard Weiner, a former All-American swimmer, said Phelps’ abilities stem from his actual swimming technique more so than his body type. I think it is a combination of both, but Phelps’ physique gave him the edge when it came to breaking records.

Four years later, Phelps might need a new method for beating Lochte. The on-land friendship and camaraderie shared between Phelps and Lochte will have to go on hold in London.

Al Bello/Getty Images
Michael Phelps is still the top dog in Olympic swimming.

At the 2011 World Aquatics Championships, Lochte proved he is no longer one of Team USA’s “other” swimmers. According to Jessica Salter of telegraph.co.uk:

“Lochte, 27, had spent his adult life chasing his American team-mate…over seven years he had lost 20 times to Phelps in the 200m and 400m IMs. In every international race, Phelps had come out on top. Until [2011].”

Lochte collected five gold medals at the 2011 Worlds (200m freestyle, 200m IM, 400m IM, 200m backstroke, 4x200m freestyle relay). As a result, Lochte is the defending FINA World Swimmer of the Year, not Phelps.

The University of Florida alumnus has qualified for the 2012 Olympics in each of these events. Phelps and Lochte will go head-to-head in both the 200m IM and the 400m IM. Until Lochte’s coming-out party in 2011, Phelps dominated these races.

What, then, has brought Lochte into the same atmosphere as Phelps? According to Karen Crouse of nytimes.com:

“If Lochte was going to move out of Phelps’ slipstream, he would have to train smarter, eat healthier, lift more. He added strongman exercises to his dryland routine, grilled chicken breasts to his diet and two marketing mavericks to his inner circle. Out went greasy foods, sugary beverages and the Octagon representation that he shared with Phelps.”

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
The two will enter as rivals in London, but only one will win.

Four years ago, Lochte was satisfied with just sharing the medal stand with Phelps. In 2012, Lochte will likely only smile with golds.

I think many Americans will choose to support Lochte over Phelps, because there is, I believe, a greater human element to Lochte’s style.

Growing up, Phelps was all about swimming. According to Crause:

“Phelps’s journey, mostly a solitary one, was meticulously mapped out by his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, who has acknowledged, ‘The trade-off is he missed some experiences that other people had.’ Phelps turned professional at 16 after competing in the 2000 Olympics. While he has taken college classes, Phelps missed out at the camaraderie and team-building at the core of collegiate competition.”

Bowman does, however, believe this early jump to the professional ranks was the main thing that made Phelps a swimming legend. In a way, swimmers everywhere should be thankful for that.

Lochte, on the other hand, seemed to not take swimming seriously enough. Both of Lochte’s parents were swimming coaches, but his father often removed him from training sessions as a kid for disciplinary reasons. According to Salter, Lochte’s father said “he spent more time in the showers than he did in the pool.”

Even today, Lochte’s personable demeanor shines brighter than his swimming skills. Swimming only takes precedence while racing; otherwise, he goes “back to being relaxed Ryan.”

Michael Regan/Getty Images
Ryan Lochte's class-clown personality is world-class.

An accurate nickname for Phelps, conversely, could be “Machine Michael.”

Lochte and Phelps drive each other to improve, though indirectly. They do not practice with each other, because their coaches believe they would try to outdo each other.

Lochte has adjusted to Phelps more so than Phelps has adjusted to Lochte, though. The hero from Beijing said he has not changed his approach much from 2008. Lochte, though, has changed every bit of his approach, presumably just to beat Phelps.

In London, Lochte might just show the world he has conquered Phelps' decade-long hold on Olympic swimming.

As these two swimming giants compete against each other, it is a win-win for the sport and the USA. Considering Phelps will retire from competition after the 2012 Games, there is no other time to see this rivalry in action.

Now that the winning personality wins in the pool, too, Lochte is far and away the fan favorite.   

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