When U.S. swim team assistant coach Dave Marsh saw Michael Phelps in a hotel elevator at the team's training camp in Knoxville earlier this month, he thanked the 14-time Olympic gold medalist for putting the 400-meter individual medley back on his Olympic program this summer.
"I told him, 'You didn't need to and no one really expected you to,'" recalls Marsh. "But now I'm going to have something to challenge my age-groupers with for the next 15 years. As a club coach that's the cornerstone event you want young people to point toward."
Marsh isn't the only one giving thanks. NBC execs are pumping their fists, London bookies are doing brisk business (as of Friday, Lochte was the better than odds-on-favorite to win the 400 IM, Saturday, July 28, 2:30 PM ET) and Olympic visitors lucky enough to hold tickets for Saturday night swimming are praising their lottery luck. When Phelps declared his intention to swim the 400 IM at the trials in Omaha after months of being coy on the subject -- his tweet of a picture of his shaved face the day before prelims was, finally, the definitive clue -- and finished second to rival Ryan Lochte, he set up the perfect inauguration of the swimming competition of the London Games, his final Olympics. And after Phelps snuck in Saturday by qualifying with the eighth-fastest time, the first final of the eight-day swimming competition will feature the two greatest swimmers in the world battling in the first of two highly anticipated head-to-head showdowns.
"For someone who wants to promote the sport of swimming, there's not a better way in the world than for him to swim that race," Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, said at a standing-room only press conference in London on Thursday. "It will be a spectator's dream."
What's at stake for the two rivals, besides a gold medal? For Phelps, who has a lock on the title of the greatest swimmer in history regardless of the outcome, a victory would make him the first male to win an Olympic swimming event three times -- if he loses and two-time Olympic 100 breaststroke champion Kosuke Kitajima of Japan doesn't win on Sunday night, Phelps will have three other chances for the historic triple, in the 200 fly (July 31); the 200 IM (Aug. 2) and 100 fly (Aug. 3). It would also spectacularly advance his campaign to surpass Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina as the most decorated Olympian of all time. (Phelps has 16 medals overall; Latynina has 18, including nine gold.)
A win for Lochte would strengthen his claim on the title of world's greatest swimmer of the moment and greatly expand his cover-boy appeal, which is already off the charts by swimmer standards. (This summer he has graced the covers of Men's Health, Men's Journal and, in a rare coup for a guy, Vogue.)
Phelps has had his share of magazine covers, too, but his appeal has been strictly excellence. While Lochte is outgoing, gregarious and daring in his attire and his distractions -- his coach, Gregg Troy, had to talk him out of going skydiving a few years back but has never tried to talk him out of wearing, say, a pink Speedo brief in a Grand Prix race -- Phelps is more reserved in manner, dress and pastime: aside from swimming, his favorite participation sport is golf. While Lochte has tried to gain a competitive edge by flipping tractor tires and dragging heavy chains, Phelps has done the same by sleeping in a high-altitude chamber. Yet they have much in common, including beautiful technique, high pain tolerance, low defeat tolerance and unshakable confidence. "They are both so calm before a race," marvels teammate Cullen Jones, a freestyle sprinter. "Now it's to the point where they just step into the ready room and everyone else gulps."
When it comes to the small details that can make or break a race, Lochte seems to have caught up to Phelps.
"[Ryan] is a little more experienced than he was four years ago and Michael is every bit as good as he was four years ago," says Troy, the head men's Olympic coach. "It'll be a good clash."
Four years ago, the 400 IM was expected to be the marquee event of the men's swimming competition in Beijing. Months before the Games, in the thrilling final at the trials in Omaha, Lochte, who was nursing a recently sprained ankle, kept pace with Phelps until flubbing his final turn. After Phelps won in a world-record time of 4:05.25, .83 ahead of him, Lochte, who had never beaten Phelps head-to-head in a final of a major competition, vowed to set himself up better on the final turn in Beijing. But in the end, the turn wasn't the difference. Lochte, who had slept through the team meeting warning athletes to avoid ingesting tap water, developed a stomach bug soon after arriving in Beijing and was still weak when the 400 IM final rolled around. As Phelps set a world record of 4:03.84, Lochte came in third, after Hungary's Laszlo Cseh, in a time of 4:08.09, more than four seconds behind.
Much has changed since then. In Beijing, Phelps declared that he was done swimming the grueling 400 IM. Lochte wouldn't have minded ditching it, too, but training for it is so integral to his preparation for his other races that Troy convinced him that he might as well race it, too. So while Phelps made good on his vow and avoided the event in major international meets over the next three years (except for the 2010 Pan Pacs, when he didn't make the A final), Lochte took ownership of it, winning two straight world titles and the 2010 Pan Pac title.
Even as he struggled to find motivation to keep swimming in the years between Beijing and London, Phelps started dabbling again in the 400 IM, his "ideal event," according to Bowman. Though he had several strong performances over the Grand Prix season, Phelps remained secretive about whether he planned to swim it at trials in Omaha -- until he tweeted his clean shave.
After taking a lead in the butterfly leg of the final at trials this year, Phelps fell behind both Lochte and Tyler Clary in the backstroke before he overtook Clary in the breaststroke. But he didn't gain on Lochte until the freestyle leg. Phelps's final 50 was almost a second faster than Lochte's, but it wasn't enough: Lochte hit the wall in 4:07.06 as Phelps touched .83 second behind, the exact same margin by which Phelps had beaten him at trials four years earlier.
Bowman later declared Phelps's turns "horrendous" and his breaststroke, a leg that had undergone a marked improvement this year, insufficient. On Thursday Bowman said, "I think he has made some significant progress since the trials."
Friends, suitemates and spade partners out of the pool in London, Lochte and Phelps are cautious about making this race all about beating the other. Phelps sticks to talking about his personal goals, which he won't share with anyone but Bowman until after he's finished swimming. And Lochte says he's worried about far more than Phelps.
"Michael is just one person," he said on Thursday. "There's a bunch of other swimmers across the world I've got to worry about."
Maybe, but the only other swimmer besides Phelps and Lochte to break 4:10 this year is U.S. teammate Tyler Clary, who came in third in Omaha and missed an Olympic berth in that event. Saturday night's final is likely to be a match race between Phelps and Lochte, which will be as excruciating for them as it is entertaining for fans.
"It's not going to be easy," says Phelps. "It's going to be a lot more painful this time around than it was four years ago, I can tell you that."