Over the past two years, Ryan Lochte took the U.S. swimming crown from Beijing hero Michael Phelps. With his performance so far in the 2012 Olympic Games, it looks like an early abdication of the throne could be in the cards.
Lochte didn’t disappoint en route to winning the 400-meter individual medley, but showed he is no otherworldly force with his fourth-place finish in the 200-meter freestyle final yesterday, with France’s Yannick Agnel blowing away the field to take gold.
It’s one thing to underwhelm in a race that is one’s weakest in the Games. The fourth-place finish stings, but Agnel’s winning time was almost 1.5 seconds faster than Lochte’s personal best in the event.
What is more crushing is giving up a significant lead as the anchor leg of a relay. This unfortunately happened for Lochte in the 4x100 freestyle, where Agnel swam an entire second faster than he in the final leg and overtook Lochte in the final 25 meters to leave the Americans stunned with silver.
Lochte was no turtle, but couldn’t step up to combat Agnel’s Lezak-esque sprint in the final two laps.
But I digress. Despite his two early losses, Lochte still has a very good chance at reaching four golds by the time the swimming competition in London wraps up for him on Thursday.
First off, his best event is yet to come with the 200-meter backstroke. Lochte’s only individual gold medal in Beijing was in this event, where he broke the world record while defeating American backstroke legend Aaron Peirsol.
Peirsol owns the world record again, but retired in 2011. Lochte finished over a second ahead of Japan’s silver medalist Ryosuke Irie at last year’s FINA World Championships, and it will be a massive upset if he doesn’t fend off Irie and the American Tyler Clary for gold. Agnel’s absence from the event doesn’t hurt either.
In the 200-meter individual medley, Lochte is also a heavy favorite. The Bovada sportsbook has him at 4-9 (about 69 percent) odds to emerge the victor in an event he also took home gold in last year.
The Phelps factor is most definitely in play here, but anything worse than second place will be tragic for Lochte. This anticipated duel will be one of the premier swimming events in London, and a victory over Phelps here will help the public focus less on Lochte’s early tribulations.
Finally, the 4x200-meter relay final is on the docket for tonight, and will be Lochte’s easiest chance at the gold these Games. Lochte and Phelps teamed together in 2008 to help wallop the second-place finisher Russia by over five seconds and beat their own world record by almost that amount as well.
France has put the Americans on alert in the relays, so look for America's top two swimmers of this generation to prevent déjà vu this time around.
Phelps’ eight golds in Beijing have spoiled the United States when it comes to men’s swimming. Going 8-for-8 is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, a notion Phelps is reinforcing with his early struggles.
Only five men’s swimmers have won four or more gold medals in a single Games, so Lochte achieving this number couldn’t be considered anything but a success. We all need perspective.
It’s fair to say that that Lochte has talked the talk, but is yet to truly walk the walk. However, he still has three events left. Three in which he’s deservedly the favorite.
Any non-medal finish for the proclaimed top American swimmer shows a sense of “defeatability.” Yet, Lochte deserves time to prove himself on the Olympic stage. Let’s give him time. At least until Thursday.