Each fueled by the other, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte will face off in the Games' greatest rivalry
This is an article from the July 23, 2012 issue
IN SEPTEMBER 2009, Michael Phelps visited the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club in the South Bronx. The four-lane swimming pool needed repair, and the mostly African-American and Hispanic children didn't know much about Phelps or his sport. After listening to him talk about setting and sticking to goals, the kids peppered Phelps with questions: What do you eat for breakfast? Is it true you swim six hours a day? What's your dog's name?
Before he left, Phelps presented the club with a grant from his foundation along with funds from Speedo that amounted to $20,000 to help fix up the pool area and bolster the swim team. In February 2012, Phelps returned to the club to see young swimmers, wearing dark-blue phelps caps with American flags on them, churn out laps in a gleaming pool as coaches barked encouragement. When it was time for questions, a kid asked, "What's your split in the 200 freestyle?" Phelps laughed and gave the time, around 51 seconds. The children gasped. They understood swimming now and knew how fast that was.
Then came the next question: "What is Ryan Lochte's split?"
As an encore to his eight-gold-medal tour de force in Beijing, Phelps, 27, will swim seven events in London and likely win medals in all of them. He will surpass Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina as the Games' alltime medalist. (She won 18; he already has 16.) He has set 29 individual world records (itself a record) and won 61 world and Olympic titles, and he's universally recognized as the greatest swimmer in history. Yet a nagging question will follow Phelps to his fourth and final Games: Is he the greatest swimmer right now?
Along with raising the profile of his sport—sellouts in a basketball arena for the trials, prime-time TV coverage for non-Olympic meets, mainstream endorsements for the top aquatic performers—Phelps has helped create a true peer, a swimmer who has the versatility, strength, mental toughness and pain tolerance to swim a similar range of events and even beat him in some.
What is now the best rivalry swimming has ever seen was, for a long time, no rivalry at all. Starting in 2002, Lochte, who turns 28 on Aug. 3, lost to Phelps 17 straight times in the 200 individual medley before finally beating him at the 2010 U.S. nationals. He again outdid Phelps at last summer's worlds in Shanghai, defeating him in both the 200 freestyle and the 200 IM. In the latter race Lochte became the first swimmer to break a long-course world record since high-tech buoyancy suits were banned in 2010.
When accepting the trophy for that performance at USA Swimming's Golden Goggles Awards last November, Lochte made a point of thanking Phelps. "I wouldn't get this if it wasn't for Michael," Lochte said. "He pushes me every day. And I push him. We have a great rivalry."
At major events over the last two years, Phelps and Lochte have rarely been separated by more than a few 10ths of a second in any race. At the U.S. trials in Omaha, Phelps outtouched Lochte in the 200 free and 200 IM by a total of .14 of a second. (Even in the 100 butterfly, which Lochte swam "for fun," finishing third, Phelps beat him by just .51.) However, Lochte defeated Phelps by almost a second in the 400 IM. All four races brought crowds that ranged from 11,000 to 14,000 people at the CenturyLink Center to their feet.
Phelps has since dropped the 200 free to focus on the 4 √ó 100 relay. That leaves two head-to-head races in London, the 200 and 400 IMs. Both could be, in effect, match races. No one else in the world is within 1½ seconds in the 200 or 2½ seconds in the 400. "That rivalry is something you'll never see again in the Olympics, probably," says U.S. freestyler Ricky Berens, who'll be a relay teammate of the two stars in London. "It's so huge in every single race."
THE CLOCK may not separate Phelps and Lochte, but style and personality do. Lochte is as colorful and out there as Phelps is neutral and veiled. An adventurous dresser who might pair plaid shorts with Argyle (he calls them gargoyle) socks, the chiseled Lochte—who was on the covers of Vogue, Men's Health and Men's Journal this summer—has been known to mount the awards platform with diamond grillz on his teeth and something equally striking on his feet. (In Omaha he sported winged, flag-themed hightops.) When Phelps is in the ready room before a race, his gaze is impenetrable; his headphones are on and his focus is inward. In the same room an unplugged Lochte might try to chat up a competitor about how the Orlando Magic, his favorite NBA team, is faring. "Their body language and attitude 20 minutes before a race couldn't be more different," says three-time Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin. "Michael is very intense. Ryan is a fierce competitor, but he's always so chill."
Outgoing and unhurried, Lochte can be his own worst enemy. In the middle of one particularly grueling hour at the trials, which included the 200-backstroke final, the 200-IM final and a 100-fly semifinal, Lochte had to attend an award ceremony for the 200 back. His 100-fly race was just minutes away, yet he stopped to sign autographs. "It's a little bit of a weakness," says his coach, Gregg Troy. "He has to learn to say no once in a while."
Phelps, whose celebrity is in a different stratosphere, is less knowable. He is, in a sense, a victim of his own success. "Michael is handled, all the time," says his coach, Bob Bowman. "So all people get to see is this Olympic machine. They never see his more human side. He'd hate me to say this, but he's a very sweet boy. Even though he is this ferocious competitor and can be surly and hard to get along with sometimes, he can be one of the kindest, most empathetic people you'll ever meet."
For Bowman the most powerful moment of the Beijing Games occurred not inside the Water Cube but outside it, on a bus heading to the athletes' village. Phelps had just swum the night preliminaries in the 100 fly, in which he would earn his seventh gold. His fame soaring, he needed a lot of security help to negotiate crowds. The Chinese volunteer on the bus that night was an awkward, overweight teenage boy who, inevitably, made a move to ask Phelps for an autograph. "I gave him the look of death—Don't go near him!" recalls Bowman. "I felt bad, but that's the way it was. The kid went away and just stood there, terrified. Watching this, Michael reaches into his bag, pulls out a Sharpie and tells the kid to come over. The kid is shaking. Michael signs his volunteer shirt. You could tell the impact he had on that kid—that's the greatest moment of his life! Then, as we walked off the bus, Michael pulled out the cap he had worn to win something and gave that to the kid. Honestly, it makes me cry to think of it. Nobody sees that side of Michael."
PHELPS IS comfortable being the hunted. Lochte prefers the underdog role. After his five-gold-medal performance at the 2011 worlds, Lochte mentally took himself back to being the challenger who could never quite beat Phelps. It's a familiar role. When Lochte was a sophomore at Florida in 2004, Troy recognized that he would never compete with Phelps if he didn't improve his turns and the underwater dolphin kicks that follow. Now Lochte's walls are on par with Phelps's; his signature final turn, on which he explodes off the wall and stays underwater for the allowable 15 meters, lungs screaming, before he pops up for the final sprint, is arguably better. This year the emphasis has been on butterfly, another of Phelps's strengths, and on yardage without end.
Because his Olympic races aren't as conveniently spaced as Phelps's—the finals of two of Lochte's best events, the 200 back and the 200 IM, will go off about 30 minutes apart on Aug. 2—Lochte steeled himself with more middle-distance work than usual this year. Between pool sessions, weights, dryland exercises and a Strongman routine that included tossing beer kegs and dragging heavy chains, Lochte logged 30 to 40 hours a week of training. His races this season were often unimpressive; at the Austin Grand Prix in January, Phelps beat him in the 200 IM by almost two seconds.
Lochte's sister Megan Torrini understood her brother's strategy, but she hated watching him struggle. "I'd tell him, 'Ryan, you did horrible!' and he'd say, 'Yeah, man, I stunk up the pool!'" she says. "He'd laugh about it, but I think he does that to himself on purpose. He wants to put himself back at the bottom because he likes that challenge. It's what keeps him motivated."
For Phelps, finding motivation after the glory of Beijing wasn't so simple. He'd skip practice for weeks at a time, sometimes to sleep in, sometimes to go golfing, at least once to head out to Las Vegas with his buddies. He often thought about quitting the sport. "There were probably 10 times when I woke and was like, What am I doing?" he says. "That's when I didn't know what my goals were, I wasn't passionate about it, didn't care."
In his dithering, Phelps lost about two years of serious training. He can't pinpoint when his focus snapped into place, but he admits that losing to Lochte twice at the 2011 worlds helped rekindle his fire. After Lochte beat him in the 200 free in Shanghai, Phelps declared himself satisfied with his time, given his subpar fitness level. But when Lochte beat him again two days later in the 200 IM, Phelps was so peeved that he declined to speak to the media right afterward, an uncharacteristic move for which he later apologized. "I think it definitely pissed him off," says Lochte. "It would piss me off. It has pissed me off, getting second to him for so many years. I know what it feels like."
Lochte thinks his success against Phelps has changed what has been a friendly if not particularly close relationship. "Before, I wasn't much of a threat to him," Lochte says. "Now we don't talk as much." Phelps disagrees. "We still joke around, we still talk at meets," he says. "I don't like it when he wins, and I'm sure he doesn't like it when I win.
"I will say this: There have been times when I haven't been in the best shape, and he has sucked every ounce of energy out of my body just to try to win a race. There have been very few people who have done that in my career. He pushes me."
ONE ASPECT of the Phelps-Lochte dynamic that won't change this summer: As they have at training camps for the last four years, the two will partner up for regular games of spades, and they will subject their opponents, usually sprinter Cullen Jones and Berens, to a torrent of trash talk. "What makes them good as a team is their unwillingness to lose," says Jones. "We're probably not the best spades players," says Phelps of his partnership with Lochte. "We're just risk takers. We shoot for the high side."
In the past Lochte has regularly skateboarded, surfed, ridden a scooter and done inadvisable things with fireworks—on July 4 he and his buddies like to play a game where they stand still as bottle rockets swoosh around them—and as a result has a history of sustaining injuries before major meets. But this year his only mishap of note was a February concussion he sustained when he got up from his bed too quickly, blacked out and smashed his head on the corner post of his bed. "He's not on a skateboard, he's not shooting hoops, not cracking his ankle chasing his dog or falling out of trees like in the past," says Lochte's dad, Steve, who's a club swimming coach in Daytona Beach. "He's a totally different person, a more mature and seasoned athlete."
Phelps, whose favorite distraction from swimming is golf, hasn't put himself in physical peril the way Lochte has. He's never been on skis or a snowboard because Bowman hasn't allowed it. But he has taken other kinds of risks. In Athens he insisted on swimming the 200 free even though he had little chance of beating favorites Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband. (Phelps finished third, behind those two.) "That was against my advice," says Bowman. "I said if you want to try to win seven gold medals, you should drop the 200 free and swim the 200 back. He wouldn't even hear of it. He wanted to race the best."
Taking on another Olympics after his solid-gold performance in Beijing is another risk. In London, Phelps won't win eight golds and probably won't win seven. Lochte, who will swim four individual events plus at least one relay, could also wind up with a mixed bag of hardware. These Games won't be about perfection, however, and they won't be about determining the greatest swimmer of all time. They will be about the best rivalry the sport will likely ever see, playing out its two final, dramatic acts.