Everywhere you go at the site of the 2012 Olympics, you see Michael Phelps' face. He's a symbol of Olympic glory, not only for the U.S., but worldwide. Winning a record eight gold medals in one summer will do that for you.
And even so, he's not assured of winning another one in London this summer, where his biggest adversary will most likely be his own countryman, Ryan Lochte.
The two have been storied rivals ever since Beijing in 2008, where Phelps beat Lochte in the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys. Of late, Lochte has made it clear that he's not willing to take a backseat anymore. Not even to Phelps.
On July 28, in the men's 400-meter individual medley qualification at 5 a.m. ET, he'll have his first opportunity to prove it.
There are very few rivalries that have been able to draw the same fanfare as Phelps vs. Lochte. People flock to Olympic events only to see them; this summer, they'll undoubtedly wake up in the middle of the night or in the wee hours of the morning in order to watch them compete.
Even Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, told the Daily Mail, "They rarely train together, mainly because we don’t want them killing each other or killing themselves—and they would."
Part of the reason the rivalry is so much fun to watch is because Lochte—the undisputed underdog—actually has a chance of taking Phelps down. Ever since losing to Phelps in those two events in 2008, Lochte has beaten him in the 200-meter freestyle, as well as in both individual medleys.
Beating Phelps when the pressure is off is one thing. But there's no stage as big as the Olympics, and it's one upon which Phelps excels.
Many believe that Phelps wouldn't have been able to achieve those eight gold medals in Beijing if Lochte hadn't been around to push him. Lochte knows that, just like he knows he could be standing in Phelps' shadow yet again when all is said and done in London in August.
Which is why, according to the New York Times, he's changed up a few things since 2008. He's still the same fun-loving, affable guy he was back then—the foil to Phelps' stony public persona—but the Times reports he's been eating better, training harder and taking the Games, and himself, more seriously.
In other words, he's not only trying to beat Phelps—he's trying to become him. And if Lochte wins, it will be because he learned from the best.
Nobody knows who's going to come out on top this summer. Last month's U.S. Olympic Trials don't matter because, according to NBC.com's Jason Devaney, neither of them was swimming at full throttle. If they did, they'd be revealing too much. Neither swimmer was willing to disclose his top speed.
For all we know, Lochte could have been holding back at the trials and could blow us all away—Phelps included—in London.
Watching what goes down between these two is the primary reason Americans are going to be tuning in to the Olympics. This is the main event. Forget the USA basketball team or gymnastics, which often steal the show; this rivalry is the reason we're watching this summer.
And even if Phelps is unable to sustain his stretch of dominance, it won't be a disappointment. If he fails, it will most likely be because his likable, fun-loving adversary finally succeeded.
You can see the full Olympic swimming schedule here.