Entering the 2012 Olympic Games, there was no head-to-head matchup more anticipated than the “duel in the pool” between the United States’ two biggest stars in swimming, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
Fortunately for swimming fans, the duel lived up to the hype.
Phelps and Lochte went head-to-head twice, and in those competitions, there was no conclusive victor between the two. Lochte was dominant and won gold in the first matchup, while Phelps failed to medal in Saturday’s 400-meter individual medley. Phelps struck back on Thursday, defeating Lochte by .63 seconds to win gold in the 200-meter individual medley.
Phelps and Lochte came into the Games as the sport’s two biggest stars, and the competition did not disappoint, leaving swimming fans on the edge of their seats. However, one question still remains.
Which swimmer proved to be the United States’ best male swimmer in London?
Phelps’ swimming program at the 2012 Games got off to a very disappointing start, when he failed to medal in the 400 IM. The lackluster performance, which was Phelps’ first failure to medal in an Olympic race since 2000, raised concerns that Phelps’ era of greatness had already come to an end.
Phelps started to turn it around on Sunday, when his team-best split of 47.15 seconds in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay led the U.S. team to a silver medal.
Phelps started Tuesday by winning his first individual medal of the Games in the 200-meter butterfly, a silver, after being out-touched by South Africa’s Chad le Clos by .05 seconds. History was made later that night, however, when he anchored the gold-medal-winning U.S. 4x200-meter freestyle relay team, earning his 19th overall Olympic medal to break the all-time record, formerly held by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina.
The record-breaking moment seemed like it would be hard for Phelps to top, but his signature moment of the Games came on Thursday, when he won his first individual gold with his win over Lochte in the 200 IM.
At first, Phelps’ Games seemed headed for a disappointing result, but he has turned it around for a fantastic showing. He has already earned four medals, two of them gold, and he is in good position to earn two more medals.
In addition to Phelps’s gold on Thursday, he also established himself as the gold-medal favorite in Friday’s 100-meter butterfly final. He qualified first in the 100 fly semifinals and was the only swimmer to break 51 seconds in the event.
Phelps will conclude his 2012 Games, and his Olympic career, in Saturday’s final of the 4x100-meter medley relay. The U.S. team will be heavily favored in that race, with two other gold medalists, 100-meter backstroke winner Matt Grevers and 100-meter freestyle champion Nathan Adrian, being a part of the team along with Phelps, who will swim the butterfly.
Even if Phelps fails to win another medal, which is unlikely, his final Olympic Games will go down as a great success, as he proved was still one of the world’s best swimmers while breaking the all-time Olympic medals record.
Ryan Lochte’s performance at the Olympic Games—at least in his individual events—took an opposite turn from Phelps.
Lochte got off to a tremendous start, winning the 400 IM by a dominant margin of 3.68 seconds. His Games, however, became largely a disappointment from that point forward.
Lochte’s first defeat came at the hands of France’s Yannick Agnel. As the anchor leg of the 4x100 free relay, Lochte entered the pool with the lead, but swam exactly one second slower than Agnel, who passed him to earn the gold for France, leaving the U.S. team with silver.
Agnel proved to be Lochte’s nemesis once again on Monday, winning the 200-meter freestyle while Lochte finished fourth, failing to earn a medal.
Like Phelps, Lochte was a member of the 4x200 free relay team that earned gold on Tuesday. Thursday, however, brought more disappointment for Lochte.
Lochte was favored to win the 200-meter backstroke and held the lead with 50 meters to go in the race, but he ended up finishing with only a bronze. Then in the 200 IM, which will likely be Lochte’s final race of the 2012 Games, he was beaten head-to-head by Phelps.
Lochte could still compete in the medley relay, but if so, it would likely only be in the qualification round. With Phelps, Grevers, Adrian and breaststrokers Brendan Hansen and Eric Shanteau, the U.S. has better options to swim each of the four legs than Lochte.
It may be unfair to consider Lochte’s performance at the 2012 Games a disappointment, considering he won two golds and five total medals, which is the same number of golds and one more medal that Phelps has.
Considering the high expectations and fantastic start, however, Lochte’s end results were somewhat of a letdown.
Update - Friday morning: Lochte was not selected to participate in the qualification round of the medley relay.
Lochte leads the overall medal count between the two swimmers right now, with a bronze medal that Phelps does not have. However, if the results of his final two events shake out as expected, Phelps will emerge with more golds and overall medals.
Taking a closer look at the results also sways in Phelps’ favor. Phelps swam the fastest split on both of the medal-winning relay teams, while he was less than an arm’s length away from winning gold in the 100 fly.
Both swimmers had a disappointing race where they failed to make the podium, but Lochte’s Games will be remembered as much for losing leads in the 4x100 free relay and the 200 back as they will for his initial win over Phelps.
Two golds and five total medals is a great achievement for any swimmer, but it is not enough to summon a changing of the guard away from Phelps, the all-time leader with 16 career golds and 20 career overall medals (those numbers could rise as high as 18 golds and 22 medals).
Assuming Phelps stays true to his word and retires from competition following the Games’ conclusion, Lochte has achieved enough in London to claim Phelps' throne as the star of U.S. swimming. For one final Olympics, however, Phelps has managed to retain his hold on the claim as the United States' best swimmer, and arguably still the world’s best.