In the United States, athletes who compete in “Olympic” sports take the back seat to those who compete in “major” sports, except during the Olympic Games.
American athletes in less-heralded sports can really only become recognized by the public if they dominate their sports. That is what Michael Phelps did in the 2000s, which drew a few more American eyes towards competitive swimming.
We are four years removed from Phelps' historic eight golds in the pool, but Americans have taken notice of swimming again now that another American is challenging Phelps for the title of world's best swimmer. His name is Ryan Lochte.
The intra-national rivalry between Phelps and Lochte stole many headlines in the American media's pre-game 2012 Olympics coverage. Team USA Swimming, and FINA in general, has benefited from this. Unfortunately, the competitive swimming community will have only 15 minutes of fame guaranteed.
A continued Lochte-Phelps rivalry could have kept swimming in the American public conscious for many years, but with Phelps retiring from competition following the 2012 Olympics, a new mega-story must emerge.
Nobody will simply hand the top honors to Lochte upon Phelps' retirement. If American swimming wants to stay in the public eye, then Lochte must win every race remaining for which he has qualified in these Olympics in dominating fashion.
If you do not believe me, then you must be the kind of American who still watches every stage of the Tour de France sans Lance Armstrong. Kudos to you, but understand that you are a rare breed.
Phelps, in case you were wondering, does not have to prove himself as much as Lochte. With the all-time Olympic medal record in tow, everything else for Phelps from today forward is just gravy.
Some of you who consider yourself part of the swimming community feel Lochte proved himself at the 2011 FINA World Championships. To the American public, though, only the Olympics count. Love it or hate it, it is what it is.
If the 2012 Olympic Games ended today, the American public would remember Lochte as the guy who blew it for Team USA in the men’s 4X100 M freestyle relay final.
According to London2012.com, Nathan Adrian started with a 47.89 split. Phelps followed with a 47.15 split. Third was Cullen Jones, who clocked in at 47.60. Lochte, the anchor leg, finished in 47.74 seconds.
The official results, however, also take Adrian's reaction time of 0.65 seconds into account. Therefore, Adrian technically swam his leg in 47.24 seconds. From this perspective, Lochte had the slowest split on Team USA.
Most people will only remember that Team USA was winning after 350 meters but finished the race in second place. Lochte might have done his best, but his best was not good enough to win.
Jones can console Lochte all he wants, but to the American public, Lochte failed.
It was the same story after the men’s 4X100 M freestyle relay final in 2008, but that time, Jason Lezak was the hero. Lezak was there in 2012, but as a cheerleader in the stands.
Will Lochte ever redeem himself in the public eye? Perhaps, but only if he dominates his remaining competition, like I mentioned earlier.
Lochte’s journey to reclaim his post as the world’s best swimmer begins tonight in the men’s 200 IM final.
Phooey, that Phelps guy is in this race. This means Lochte will need to swim three races simultaneously: the physical 200 meters, the race for the best American male swimmer, and the race for the world’s best male swimmer.
The individual medley is the best way to judge a swimmer’s all-around abilities. The race includes all the strokes, back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Actually, it is butterfly to backstroke to breaststroke to freestyle, but you get the point.
Lochte won gold in the men’s 400 IM final on July 28 to defend his 2011 World Championships title. Phelps finished fourth, confirming that Lochte had indeed taken over the previous master of this event.
Lochte and Phelps tag-teamed to win the men’s 4X200 M freestyle relay on July 31, but Phelps got all the glory. In that race, Phelps set the all-time medal record for an Olympics career. Lochte again had to be in Phelps’ shadow.
Today is Lochte’s big day, though.
Lochte will start off with the men’s 200 M backstroke, an event he won in 2008 by setting the Olympic record. He is also the defending world champion. No Phelps in this race, either!
Following the men’s 200 M backstroke final, Lochte will get right back to swimming. In the men’s 200 IM final, Lochte will need to dethrone Phelps, who has not lost this event in major international competition since 2002, according to Nick Zaccardi of SI.com.
Phelps out-swam Lochte at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in the men’s 200 IM, as well.
Tisk tisk, Lochte, tisk tisk.
In 2011, Lochte won FINA World Swimmer of the Year. This year, the way events have unfolded at the Olympics, the swimming gods have blocked Lochte’s full ascent to No. 1 status.
Tonight, Lochte’s new and improved training regimen must help him fight off not only Phelps and the other swimmers, but also the forces of nature.
Phelps has been a swimming machine since the 2000 Olympics in Athens. Lochte, conversely, has vowed to not make swimming the central focus of his life.
Nobody will ever know, but if Lochte had taken the same path as Phelps, maybe he could have brought home the gold in the men’s 4X100 M freestyle relay final. Or, maybe Lochte would have burnt out and never realized his full potential. The choices that we make.
Phelps has repeatedly stated he will retire after these Olympics, regardless of result. No Rio in 2016. Therefore, Lochte needs to be the face of Team USA men’s swimming.
Only time will tell if Lochte can win out in London. If he misses in just one event, at the very least, the American public will never call Lochte the world’s best swimmer.
Sorry, world swimming community, but majority rules. The Olympics are what majority sees and what majority judges.
If Lochte wins, he will be invincible. If Lochte loses, he will be invisible. Simple as that, no excuses.
Oh, and swimming in the USA would go back to its pre-Phelps popularity.
UPDATE: Michael Phelps defeated Ryan Lochte in the men's 200 IM by 0.63 seconds to take gold. Lochte took silver.