Olympic Swimming 2012: Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte Rivalry Set for Final Roar

Avi Wolfman-ArentCorrespondent IIAugust 1, 2012

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 01:  Michael Phelps (top) of the United States and Ryan Lochte (bottom) of the United States compete in the first semifinal heat of the Men's 200m Individual Medley on Day 5 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre on August 1, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
Adam Pretty/Getty Images

It isn't in our nature as sports fans to appreciate things as they happen.

We're a forward-looking breed, always onto the next big game or controversy.

But if you can, stop for a moment. Breathe. Look around.

And while you're at it, orient your breathing, reflective self to the London Aquatics Centre, where, Thursday afternoon, Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps will race against each other for the final time.

They will each swim 200 meters, using all four strokes—a tidy summation of what makes these two such a wondrous pair. In jockspeak we call it "versatility," but that term seems woefully inept when describing these two.

Phelps and Lochte do everything one can possibly do in a pool, and they're doing it in the same sliver of time—in the same country, at the same age, fueled by the same potent blend of ego, talent and ambition.

One chases history and a place among the greatest Olympians ever. The other looks to make his name and escape the Great One's shadow.

No, the rivalry hasn't evolved quite as hoped in London.

Turns out, Phelps, after years of lax training, is only the fourth-best 400-meter individual medley swimmer in the world. And Ryan Lochte, he's only the fourth-best 200 freestyler.

Now go back in history and find me the swimmers who can say they were the fourth-best 200 freestyler and the best 400 IM-er and one of the best 200 IM-ers and one of the best 200 backstrokers.

Then run the same analysis on Phelps.

In either case, you won't catch many swimmers in your filter. And I guarantee you won't find any from the same country and the same era.

This is once-in-a-lifetime fare, and I'm hoping we're treated to a worthy final chapter.

I'm hoping we get a reprise of what we saw in this event at U.S. trials—two maestros going stroke for stroke, turn for turn, kick for kick, until someone jabs for that final wall a millisecond faster than the other.

That's the finale these two deserve.

But even if the cosmos deny us a fitting capstone, make no mistake, this rivalry is something beyond the usual theater of athletics.

Soak it in, sports fans.

Leave the relentless prognostication and analysis for another day and just...soak it in.