Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte have had a duality in their relationship over the past eight years. They've been staunch competitors as well as teammates.
While they will likely share the top spot on the podium at some point during the 2012 London Olympics, their first competition will be to see which one takes center stage—both on the podium and in men's swimming.
Perhaps it is a bit presumptuous to assume they'll finish one-two in the 400-meter individual medley on Saturday, but their performance at the U.S. Olympic Trials supports the premise.
Lochte posted the best time in the world for 2012 with a finish of four minutes, 07.06 seconds. Phelps is next with a mark of 4:07.89.
Teammate Tyler Clary is third in 2012 with a mark that is almost three seconds behind—and he won't compete in the 400 IM in London because the U.S. only receives two spots in the pool.
The closest international competitors are a duo from Japan, but they are over three seconds behind the Americans.
It would require a major meltdown from Phelps or Lochte to keep the U.S. from grabbing the gold and silver medals.
In the 400 IM—considered one of the hardest events at the Olympics—Phelps and Lochte are virtually indistinguishable. Lochte beat Phelps at the trials and won gold at the 2011 World Championships in a Phelps-free 400 IM.
Lochte also beat Phelps in the 200-meter IM, setting a world record in the process. He is the only swimmer to improve on a world mark since the high-tech competition suits used in the Beijing games were banned.
The race to determine the best all-around swimmer in the world won't come down to talent. That honor goes to Phelps, who is simply a better natural swimmer.
His proportionately long arms (6'7" span), size-14 feet, hyper-extensive ankles, slim body and relatively short legs help make him more aerodynamic in the water with a better propulsion system than most swimmers.
Lochte simply can't compete based on raw talent.
If Phelps were still at his peak conditioning and performance, he would be untouchable in this race. He demonstrated that in Beijing when he shattered his own Olympic and world records with a time of 4:03.84.
But Phelps isn't the same swimmer he was four years ago. His conditioning hasn't been the same and it has shown in the pool—although some of his drop in finish times can be explained by the forced change in swimwear.
Lochte is a different swimmer as well.
After the Beijing games, he gained a sense of purpose.
Lochte wasn't content with being washed out in Phelps' wake, and went about finding a way to catch the best swimmer in the world.
He traded in the chicken nuggets for lean chicken breasts. He changed his management and added grueling lifting exercises to his training regimen to build strength.
USA Today shared Lochte's new awareness with his diet.
I had breakfast, lunch and dinner at McDonald's (in Beijing). I think I gained about 10 pounds.
I didn't really think (about) that, knowing what you put in your body actually had an effect. So when I was growing up, I was eating fast food every day. I'd drink soda non-stop, candy, just everything. It was horrible. My go-to was McDonald's, for sure.
Anytime I could go through a drive-through, I'd do it. It could be anything from Big Macs to chicken nuggets to double cheeseburgers. I think I used to eat 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day. And now I'm more probably around 6,000 calories.
Lochte turned to the Gatorade Sports Science Institute for help with his performance. "Some races are lost with a 0.05 percentage difference, sometimes less," the institute's Asker Jeukendrup says.
"In a lot of sports, nutrition can make a difference of one percent to three percent, sometimes more. In that respect, the role of nutrition is huge. It says if you don't get it right, you don't give yourself a chance."
For the record, the difference in Lochte and Phelps in the 400 IM at the U.S. trials was 0.33 percent, while they were separated by just .08 percent in the 200 IM.
The results of his new physical regimen aren't visible in just the pool, they can also be seen on the starting block.
The 400 IM will be decided by preparation, conditioning and the mental approach to the race.
It will pit natural ability against dedicated training.
Much of the world will be pulling for Lochte, as his victory would show hard work and determination can triumph over innate talent.
Should Phelps prevail, it will send a much different message—find what you're good at and make the most of it.
Either way, the finals of the 400 IM promises to be a gallant battle between two of the best swimmers to ever take to an Olympic swimming pool.