DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – When Michael Phelps won eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, many thought the record would last decades.
Ryan Lochte has other thoughts.
He completed a Phelps-like program at the short-course world championships. He won all five individual races he entered – just as Phelps did in Beijing – and pushed the United States ahead of Russia to win the 400 medley relay on the final night of competition last Sunday. Overall, he had six golds and a silver.
The performance showed what Lochte might be capable of at the 2012 London Games.
“He’s certainly establishing himself as the best swimmer in the world, and he’s doing that in a way where I don’t think we’re seeing any end,” U.S. assistant coach David Marsh said. “In many ways, I think we’re just seeing the beginning of what he can do.”
The world records Lochte set in the 200 and 400 individual medleys were the only individual world records set in swimming all year, since high-tech bodysuits were banned at the beginning of 2010.
The only events Lochte didn’t win in Dubai were two relays. The U.S. was second in the 800 freestyle and finished fourth in the 400 free. If Phelps and a couple other missing Americans had been there to help, eight golds would certainly have been within reach for Lochte.
“We all think he can do eight events,” Marsh said. “The great thing about him is he’s very coachable. He proved at the last Olympic trials that he can handle short doubles and he has a good capacity for recovery.”
Lochte already beat Phelps in the 200 IM and 200 backstroke at the U.S. championships this summer, then won six golds to Phelps’ five at the Pan Pacific Championships in August.
“Eight gold medals is pretty impossible to surpass, but Ryan is definitely holding his own and I think the rivalry between the two will only make both of them better,” said three-time Olympic champion Natalie Coughlin, who used to swim a grueling multievent program. “Right now Ryan is swimming very, very well.”
The next major duel between Lochte and Phelps should come in July at the long-course worlds in Shanghai. Then it’s on to the U.S. trials and London.
Lochte has not yet calculated how many events he plans to swim in London.
“I’m just racing, and however many events I’m able to do, I’ll do it,” he said. “But I just like racing, so it could be one event, it could be 20, as long as I’m racing and having fun it doesn’t matter.”
Lochte was clearly having fun Sunday, when all of his skills were on display with three gold-medal performances in the space of two hours.
Lochte led off his busy final night by posting a championship-record 1:46.68 in the 200 back, a massive 2.41 ahead of American teammate Tyler Clary – who is emerging as a possible successor to Phelps and Lochte.
Fighting off fatigue, Lochte then won the 100 IM in 50.86. He was 0.05 off his semifinal time but still 0.83 ahead of runner-up Markus Deibler of Germany.
It was Lochte’s last race, however, that was most impressive.
In the medley relay, Russia held a solid lead through two legs when Lochte dived in and powered past world champion and world record holder Evgeny Korotyshkin in the butterfly leg. Garrett Weber-Gale maintained the lead and Lochte celebrated on deck the Americans’ first relay victory of the competition.
That Lochte swam so well in the butterfly leg was especially significant. That’s the leg that Phelps usually swims, and butterfly is far from Lochte’s best stroke.
“If he brings his A-game to the Olympics I don’t have a chance,” said Austrian rival Markus Rogan, who handed Lochte a couple losses at a recent short-course meet.
Rogan, Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh and Clary are shaping up as the top challengers to Lochte in the medley events, where Phelps’ status is in question.
“He has nothing to prove, that’s the problem,” said Rogan, who is not even sure Lochte’s performance in Dubai will motivate Phelps. “He needs a little bit of a bigger jolt.”
After collecting his award as the Dubai meet’s top swimmer, Lochte ran out of the arena to catch a plane home.
“I’m going to get right back in the pool,” he said. “I’ll take two or three days off for Christmas, but other than that it’s right into training and then get ready for Shanghai.”