LONDON – The retiring star with more gold medals than anyone. The friendly rival who intends to be the biggest star in London.
Michael Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte.
What a way to start eight days of swimming at the Olympic pool!
The two Americans will go head-to-head today in the 400-meter individual medley, a grueling race encompassing all four strokes, an appropriate way for one or the other to fire the first salvo in this most intriguing of rivalries.
“A very rough race,” said Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, smiling at the possibilities. “It will be a coach’s dream, but also a spectator’s dream. It will be fantastic.”
For Phelps, it’s a chance to add to his record total of 14 gold medals and become the first male swimmer to win the same event at three straight Olympics. But Lochte is the defending world champion and defeated Phelps rather easily at the U.S. trials last month.
Lochte is certainly not lacking for confidence.
“Right after Beijing, I had a four-year plan for getting here to London,” he said. “I thought I could go a lot faster. I knew I could, just because of the training I’ve done. That’s why I knew this was going to be my year.”
Lochte started following the same training regimen used by burly athletes who can compete in Strongman competitions – rolling large tires, tossing kegs, dragging chains. He believes it’s made him stronger than anyone else in the pool. He believes it’s the edge he needs to beat Phelps, and everyone else.
“It’s going to pay off,” Lochte said. “I just know it.”
Phelps is chasing more history at these games, having already claimed the record for most golds – five more than anyone else – and knocked off Mark Spitz’s iconic Olympic standard with eight wins in Beijing. Next up: Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who is two ahead of Phelps with 18 career medals. It shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for him to take down that record, since he’s got seven events in London and figures to win a medal of some color in every one of them.
Lochte doesn’t mind Phelps winning silver or bronze. Those colors don’t interest the laid-back Floridian in the least.
“You should be going in with the mindset of winning,” Lochte said. “That’s what I’m going to be doing each race. I’m going up there to win. I’m not going for silver or bronze, I’m going for gold.”
The winningest Olympian ever will certainly have something to say about that. Phelps struggled to stay motivated after Beijing, and some lackluster training showed at last year’s world championships, where he was beaten by Lochte in both the 200 free and 200 individual medley. But Phelps has clearly regained his racing edge, wanting to go out in style at what he insists will be the final meet of his career. He intends to retire as soon as his final Olympic race is done.
“Last workout ever,” Phelps tweeted Friday morning, joking that he wouldn’t have to do anymore “garbage yardage” and thanking his coach for guiding him throughout his career. “Now let’s have some fun this week.”
Phelps showed he means business by beating Lochte in both the 200 free and the 200 IM at the U.S. trials. While Lochte took the 400 IM, Phelps only restored that event to his program earlier this year. He figures to be faster in London than he was in Omaha.
“It’s always a challenge to have things go perfectly,” Phelps said. “For the very first night, it is going to be a challenging race. It’s going to be an exciting race. Bob and I have changed a few things over the past few weeks. I feel confident. Everything feels good.”