OMAHA, Neb. – The first Nebraska showdown between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte came at the edge of a curtained-off interview room, not far from the temporary pool where the U.S. Olympic swimming team will be decided.
The meeting Saturday between swimming’s two biggest stars was downright cordial. Expect it to be much different when they get in the water at the Olympic Trials, which are being held at a temporary pool set up in a 13,200-seat arena along the Missouri River, as it was in 2008.
Phelps is a 14-time gold medalist trying to put an appropriate finish on his brilliant career at the London Olympics. Lochte is the guy standing in the way, a laid-back Floridian who beat Phelps twice at last year’s world championships and keeps saying over and over again, “This is my time.”
“Michael Phelps definitely set the limit,” Lochte said. “But, I mean, he’s human. He’s not a fish or anything like that.”
Lochte has entered a staggering 11 events at the trials, though he’ll surely drop several of those and perhaps use others just for training purposes in the preliminaries. Phelps has entered seven races, including the 400-meter individual medley on the first day of the trials.
Phelps and his omnipresent coach, Bob Bowman, were coy about their plans, refusing to say if the swimmer will actually compete in the grueling race he won at the last two Olympics but vowed never to swim again after Beijing. He brought back the 400 IM over the past year and entered it at the trials, potentially setting up his first clash with Lochte, the defending world champion in that event.
“We’ve got a couple of hours to decide, don’t we?” Phelps asked.
Phelps even skirted a question about when he would shave his mustache, fearing that would reveal his plans.
“I can’t give that away,” Phelps said. “If I say I’m doing it tomorrow, then you’ll know I’m swimming the 400 IM. If I say I’m doing it Monday, that means I’m not. It will come off when the rest of my body hair comes off.”
Lochte and Phelps will certainly face each other in two of their best events: the 200 IM and the 200 freestyle. Phelps is the defending Olympic champion in both races (a two-time defending champ in the medley). But Lochte took them both at the 2011 worlds in Shanghai, beating Phelps by a total of about a half-second and setting a world record in the 200 IM, just to rub it in.
With that triumph still fresh, Lochte is itching to race Phelps as many times as possible in Omaha, starting with the 400 IM.
“He’s the world’s best swimmer ever,” Lochte said. “I love racing against him. It’s fun. He’s one of the hardest racers in the world. He’ll go toe-to-toe with you until the end. That’s excitement for me. I really hope he does swim that.”
No matter what happens, the Phelps-Lochte rivalry figures to be the defining storyline of these eight days in Omaha – even at a meet that also features 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin, rising star Missy Franklin, and two 40-somethings taking one more shot at glory, Dara Torres and Janet Evans.
“This is probably going to be one of the biggest rivalries ever,” Lochte said.