Phelps-Lochte duels set stage for story-filled U.S. swimming trials

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Gone was the mustache he sported last Saturday and with it any doubt he'd be swimming the 400 individual medley preliminaries today. And so an eight-day event that is loaded with talent and storylines will get the launch it deserves. The first final tonight, barring an unforeseen mishap this morning, will be the opening chapter of the much anticipated Michael Phelps-Ryan Lochte rivalry, 2012 edition.

Their competition for the mantle of world's greatest swimmer may be the biggest story of these trials -- it is certainly the most hyped -- but it's not the only one. Like Phelps, 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin wants to leave an enduring legacy in what may be her final Olympics. Teenage phenom Missy Franklin wants to make a mark in what may be her first. Comebacks? Jessica Hardy, who was denied a chance at Olympic glory four years ago when she had to leave the team after a positive drug test, is back in the 100 breast as well as the 100 free and 50 free after serving a reduced one-year suspension. (An arbitration panel ruled the positive test wasn't her fault.) Dara Torres, now 45, is also back in the 50 free, seeking her sixth Olympic berth, 28 years after making her first. Anthony Ervin, 31, is trying to make the Olympic team 12 years after winning the 50 free in Sydney (in a tie, no swimoff needed). And Janet Evans, now a 40-year-old mother of two, is giving it a go again in the 800 free 16 years after her last Olympics. Against those epic pauses, breaststroker Brendan Hansen's two-and-and-a-half-year break from the sport seems like a mere power nap.

Storylines aside, there's a lot of great racing ahead. Here are five events to watch:

In this event four years ago, Phelps and Lochte delivered the most captivating race of the 2008 trials. Phelps had to shatter his own world record by nearly a second to beat Lochte, who was nursing a twisted ankle. The two have not faced each other in this event since the final in Beijing, when Phelps won the first of his eight golds by beating Hungarian Laszlo Cseh and Lochte -- who was then recovering from a stomach bug -- in a world-record time of 4:03.8. Phelps, who vowed soon after that he wouldn't swim the grueling event again, hasn't swum it in a major international competition finals since, having been relegated to the consolation finals at the 2010 Pan Pacific championships.

This time both men are healthy and fit -- Lochte more so than he's ever been and Phelps -- well, we'll see. If this is just a two-man race like it was four years ago, it will be riveting enough. But 23-year-old Tyler Clary, who came in a distant fourth in this event at the 2008 trials, says he has been training all year "to beat the world champion." If Phelps wants to join the fray, no problem, says Clary. "I think I'm still going to make the team." (Clary, who is also entered in the 200 free, the 200 back and 200 fly, doesn't have the same confidence in the 200 IM; he won't be swimming it this year in Omaha.)

Coughlin has a few things she'd like to do in London, should she make the U.S. team: a) become the first female to win the Olympic 100 backstroke three times; b) swim leadoff on the USA's medley relay, which has a great shot to win the Olympic gold after two straight silvers; and c) become the most decorated American female Olympian. (She needs two medals to surpass Jenny Thompson and Torres, who both have 12.)

To accomplish the first two and make headway on the third, the 29-year-old Californian will first have to fend off a pack of teenagers who have all broken a minute in the 100 back, including Liz Pelton, Rachel Bootsma and superstar-in-waiting Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old who is already drawing comparisons to, well, Coughlin, among others. Franklin, who considers Coughlin a role model, is the biggest threat to her reign: While Coughlin may kill her on the wall -- her underwaters are among the best in the world -- the 6-foot-1 Franklin has closing speed few can match.

Given that Lochte and Phelps finished 1-2 against a very deep and talented international field in this event at the world championships in Shanghai last summer, it's likely that everyone else in Omaha will be swimming for a relay spot.

But even if Ricky Berens, who beat both Lochte and Phelps at the Charlotte UltraSwim in May, can't hang on during the final lap and this becomes another mano-a-mano between the two rivals, it will be a thriller. The final turn will be critical. That's where Lochte killed Phelps in Shanghai. You can be sure that has been a point of emphasis in Phelps' training since.

After swimming in the 4x200 free relay in the last two Olympics, Coughlin is passing on the chance to qualify this year. That still leaves a star-studded field, including Phelps' North Baltimore Aquatics training partner Allison Schmitt -- the American record holder who set a U.S. Open record of 1:55.04 in the event earlier this month -- Dana Vollmer, Katie Hoff and Franklin. Schmitt will be favored, but with Franklin's ruthless last-lap speed, this could be one of the best races of the week.

At that point in the meet it will be relevant to ask who's feeling the most pressure to make the team. Schmitt and Hoff will have had a shot on Monday in the 400 free; Vollmer in the 100 fly on Tuesday (she's favored); and Franklin in the 100 back on Wednesday. Hoff, who won a silver and two bronze medals in Beijing while feeling enormous pressure to do better, will be interesting to watch. Unlike four years ago, when she approached the trials with "dread" yet won five individual events, she says she is ready to "enjoy" the experience this time.

This may be the only event that both Lochte and Phelps will swim but neither will win. Both will likely swim at least a preliminary heat to put down a time to be considered for the 4x100 relay. Lochte won't swim the final (he has the 200 backstroke and 200 IM semis the same night) and it's highly unlikely Phelps will either, even though his time of 48.49 from March is the fastest for an American this year. Nathan Adrian, who hit a 48.50 at Santa Clara in June, will be the favorite.

Beijing Olympians Garrett Weber-Gale, Ricky Berens and Jason Lezak, the now 36-year-old hero of that 4x100 free relay, will be in the hunt, as will Ervin. All will be trying to fend off Texas Longhorn Jimmy Feigen, who beat Phelps in Austin earlier this month in a personal-best 48.63. Given the speed of the Australian team -- led by phenom James Magnussen, who swam a 47.10 in March -- whoever makes the U.S. 4x100 free relay, says Berens, "has their work cut out for them."