Michael Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte: U.S. Swimming Stardom on the Line Saturday

Dan HopeContributor IIIJuly 28, 2012

OMAHA, NE - JUNE 27:  (L-R) Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps stand on the starting block as they prepare to compete in the championship final of the Men's 200 m Freestyle during Day Three of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team Trials at CenturyLink Center on June 27, 2012 in Omaha, Nebraska.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

On the first full day of competition at the 2012 Olympic Games, one of this year’s most anticipated showdowns will take place. Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, the United States’ two biggest stars in the sport of swimming, will go head-to-head in the pool in the final of the men’s 400-meter individual medley on Saturday.

The 400-meter IM is one of the flagship events of swimming, an event that combines 100-meter intervals of swimming’s four major strokes: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. The event will get more attention than ever this year, however, because of the two men leading the charge to win gold at this year’s Games.

Phelps is the biggest star in the history of the sport of swimming, and there is no shortage of accolades to back that up.

At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Phelps made history by breaking the all-time record for most gold medals in a single Olympics by winning eight. In London, Phelps needs to win just three medals, of any color, to break the all-time record for overall medals held by former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina.

Phelps’ swimming supremacy, however, is about to be seriously challenged by Lochte

Lochte, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, emerged as the United States’ swimming star at the 2011 World Aquatics Championships in Shanghai. In that event, Lochte won five gold medals and finished with a 2-0 record in head-to-head races versus Phelps.

One of Lochte’s world championship wins came in the 400-meter IM, in which he swam a time of 4 minutes, 7.13 seconds. Phelps, however, did not compete in that event at the world championships.

Phelps is the best swimmer ever to compete in the 400-meter IM, holding the world-record time of 4:03.84, a time he set during his gold-medal victory in Beijing. Yet although he holds the world record and is a two-time gold medalist in the event, he goes into Saturday’s final as the slight underdog in the race.

At the U.S. trials, Lochte was victorious in the 400-meter IM, swimming a time of 4:07.06 to defeat Phelps by .83 seconds. Now Lochte, the defending world champion in the event, can make a true statement and take Phelps’ throne as the star of U.S. swimming by winning the gold on Saturday.

Considering that Phelps will have Lochte to push him, and vice versa, chances are very good that the record Phelps set in 2008 will be broken in this event on Saturday.

Regardless of which swimmer touches the final wall first, if a world record is broken in this event, the winner of the Phelps-Lochte duel will immediately take the throne, at least temporarily, as the star of the U.S. Olympic swimming team going forward through the rest of the Olympic swimming schedule.

There is no head-to-head matchup that has received more publicity, at least stateside, than that of Phelps and Lochte.

Phelps already became a superstar in 2008, and can maintain his superstardom by starting out his London Games with another gold, but a true opportunity awaits for Lochte to emerge as the sport’s new superstar by winning Saturday.

The 400-meter individual medley can be seen live on NBCOlympics.com at 2:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. It is certainly going to be a fun race to watch.

Thanks for reading!

Dan Hope is an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, and also a member of B/R’s 2012 Olympics Coverage Team. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.