It's no surprise Ryan Lochte was the first swimmer to break a long-course world record since the high-tech buoyancy suit era ended nearly two years ago; during that time, records fell so hard and so fast that people thought it would take decades for anyone to touch them.
Lochte doesn't listen much to conventional thinking. In fact, Lochte doesn't do conventional anything. Let's put aside his pool-deck fashion sensibilities -- the blinged-out green "Martian" high-tops with "Ryan" and "Lochte" molded into the soles, which leave a distinct if ephemeral imprint as he walks the wet pool deck; the hip-hop fedoras; the t-shirts that say "hukt on fonix wurkt 4 me" or "Google me"; the pink Speedo that moved one 17-year-old fan at the June Santa Clara meet to marvel, "The guy's got swagger for days."
Consider how Lochte conducts himself IN the pool: imagine you're a professional swimmer and you get beaten in your best events, over and over again. By the same guy. And that guy is Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer in history. You step on the blocks. Phelps' condor-length arms go through their flapping, slapping routine -- a chilling sound to most competitors -- but you don't hear it. You lock in, you race your heart out, you lose. Twenty times in seven years. After each defeat you say, "Good race," and return to your home pool to get stronger, faster, tougher.
How many people would have thrown in the towel and said, "He's the best, I'm not as good and never will be," and moved on to a path of less resistance? Plenty, it turns out. "There are a lot of people Michael has come up against who've tried a few times to beat him and found it impossible," says Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman. "And they just gave up. But not Ryan. That had to be tremendously hard to keep plugging away."
Lochte's dogged work in the pool, in the weight room, and in his trainer's garage, where he has spent hours whipping heavy ropes and tossing tractor tires, paid off this summer when he won five gold medals at the World Championships in Shanghai, beating the once invincible Phelps twice in the process. For his unfailing belief in himself, for his perseverance, and for giving us all a great storyline to look forward to at the London Games next summer, I nominate Ryan Lochte for Sportsman of the Year.
History might record that last summer was Lochte's breakout season: after losing head-to-head to Phelps in the 200 and 400 meter individual medleys 20 straight times in major long-course races over seven years, Lochte finally beat him in the 200 meter IM at last summer's Nationals in Irvine, Calif. But winning on the world stage is a different challenge.
At the world swimming championships in Shanghai, Lochte first took on an all-star 200 meter freestyle field that included Olympic champion Phelps and world-record holder Paul Biedermann of Germany. A distance swimmer by background, Lochte won the race by hanging with the faster-starting Phelps for the first 100 and powering through the final 100. Coming into the second turn in third place behind Phelps and Russian Nikita Lobintsev, Lochte burst off the wall to pull into the lead before touching in 1:44.44, .35 seconds ahead of Phelps and .44 ahead of third-place Biedermann.
Two days later, he topped that in the 200 IM, taking the lead after the butterfly leg and hanging on as Phelps closed in on the final freestyle lap. Lochte touched the wall in 1:54.00, a tenth of a second faster than the world record he set at Worlds in Rome in 2009 in a high-tech suit. Phelps, who had set the eight previous world records in the event, finished in a personal best of 1:54.16.
"I wanted to do something that everyone thought was impossible," said Lochte afterward. "Since they banned those suits, everyone thought a world record would never get touched again."
On the meet's sixth day, Lochte won two more golds, leading from start to finish in the 200 backstroke before rescuing the USA's 4x200 freestyle relay with a blazing come-from-behind anchor lap. He finished the meet by crushing the field in the 400 IM (which Phelps no longer swims), beating runner-up Tyler Clary by four seconds. That made Lochte a perfect five-for-five in finals in Shanghai. (After swimming the prelims in the 400 free relay on Day One, he watched from the stands as the U.S. came in third in the final.)
Lochte says he's not done wowing the world. Since his return from China, he has taken just one day off from training.
"I'm ready to rock this thing," he said at November's Golden Goggle awards. "Come London, I want to turn some heads."
He's clear on what makes that possible. When Lochte stepped up to the podium to accept the trophy for Best Male Race of the Year, honoring his world record swim, he, like a true Sportsman, gave credit where it was due:
"I wouldn't get this if it wasn't for Michael," he said. "He pushes me every day. And I push him. We have a great rivalry."
Stayed tuned for London. Thanks to Phelps, Lochte may soon leave a mark on the sport that's far more permanent than fading footprints on the pool deck.