The latest chapter of the Michael Phelps-Ryan Lochte rivalry, the 400-meter individual medley race on Saturday, was supposed to be one of the greatest showdowns in Olympic history. Instead, it will be remembered as the dramatic matchup that was not to be.
Things seemed awry right off the bat, when Phelps barely managed to squeak into the final with an uncharacteristically uncomfortable swim in the preliminary heats. When the finals did come, the improbable happened; not only was Phelps blown out of the water by his American teammate by over four seconds, but the 14-time Olympic gold medalist failed to even score a spot on the medal podium.
Phelps’ fourth-place finish indeed may have been shocking, but Lochte’s victory wasn’t. The cool, collected Lochtenator didn’t win because Phelps had a bad day. He won because his disciplined work ethic and grind-it-out mentality over the past four years finally paid off. Lochte’s victory over Phelps in the opening event of the 2012 Summer Olympics swimming segment showed that, if nothing else, there’s no substitute for hard work.
Having swum in Phelps’ shadow for the past eight years, it isn’t difficult to see where Lochte’s motivation to push himself beyond mental and physical limits in training comes from. Lochte was a star in his own right at Beijing 2008, winning two gold medals and a pair of bronzes, but all of that was overshadowed—and understandably so—by Phelps’ historic haul of eight gold medals.
Lochte’s training for London began the day after he competed in his last event at Beijing. That was the day when he decided he was no longer going to be the second best swimmer in the world. With coach Greg Troy always finding new ways to break down his swimmer, Lochte cranked up both the yardage and intensity of his practices.
The resolute swimmer started a dryland regimen that was similar to the Strongman competition events and also paid closer attention to his nutrition intake. His laid-back attitude outside of the pool balanced his fierce competitiveness in the water to fuel a drive that didn’t burn out. His carefree nature and injury-prone hobbies outside of the pool constantly had his coach and fans on pins and needles (he fractured a foot in a skateboarding accident and a shoulder while playing hide-and-seek). But as Lochte would probably say in his nonchalant tone, “Dude, it’s no big deal.”
Phelps, meanwhile, took a well-deserved extended break from swimming after Beijing. He was his dominant self at the 2009 World Championships, but his inconsistent practice schedule led to subpar performances at major international meets over the next two years. Both Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, admitted that for a while the Olympic star wouldn’t show up at the training facility for days, and when he did, he was just going through the motions at practice.
To be fair, Phelps certainly did his own share of equally intensive training for the eight years prior to Beijing. I can’t blame Phelps for not training these past four years the way he did for the last two Olympics, especially when he’s accomplished everything there is to accomplish in the sport. What motivation is left once you’ve already won 16 Olympic medals and cemented your status as the greatest swimmer that ever lived?
But the sport of swimming doesn’t make exceptions for even the greatest swimmer of all time, especially not when it comes to having the necessary training to compete in the 400 IM, one of the most grueling races in the sport and an ultimate test of a swimmer’s form. Lochte started training for the event four years ago while Phelps didn’t begin training for it until nine months ago (he actually didn’t think he’d ever even swim it after Beijing). In swimming, the times don’t lie and the difference in their training input was clearly shown on Saturday as Lochte was the better swimmer in every aspect of the race from start to finish: speed, power, endurance, underwater kicks and transition turns.
Phelps’ loss doesn’t take away from what he’s already accomplished by any means. He wasn’t kidding when he said that this summer would be about how many toppings he could add to his sundae. On Tuesday, Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all time by winning the 19th Olympic medal of his career. Judging by his reaction after being touched out by five hundredths of a second in the 200 fly, no one was more disappointed in his silver medal in his signature event than the swimmer himself. But in the grand scheme of things, a second-place finish isn’t nearly enough for anyone to claim that Phelps isn’t the greatest Olympian ever.
It’s too early to tell whether Phelps will actually retire or not after the Olympics, regardless of what he has announced publicly. My hope is that Phelps will come back after these Games and have another go at it. He hates the bitter taste of losing even more than he loves the sweet joy of winning. That’s what makes him so great; that’s why the idea of him coming back isn’t so far-fetched.
And let’s not forget that the Phelps-Lochte rivalry isn’t over just yet. The two best swimmers in the world will square off once again starting on Thursday in the 200 IM—a shorter event where Phelps has a better chance of beating Lochte. Their fierce competition in the pool and close friendship outside epitomize the ideal sports rivalry that few competitors are capable of embodying.
Rivalries aside, enough can’t be said about how both Phelps and Lochte have changed the face of swimming. They’ve brought an unprecedented amount of media publicity (see the cover of the newest issue of Time magazine) and fan attention to the sport.
Phelps should be credited first and foremost for paving the way with his past record-breaking performances. Between 2000 and 2010, participation in competitive swimming increased by 29.6 percent. Michael Phelps was a huge reason behind that. What he’s done for swimming is comparable to what Michael Jordan did for basketball, Wayne Gretzky for hockey, Muhammad Ali for boxing and Pele for soccer.
But Lochte’s moment to shine has come at last, and there’s nothing that can stop it from happening. It’s been a long time coming for the 27-year-old swimmer, but the hard work has finally paid off.
In the end, what we need to come away from all of this is that Phelps’ loss shouldn’t overshadow Lochte’s win. Lochte found a way to swim every lap with a purpose-driven focus every day for the last four years. That’s why he deserves all the credit for his victory on Saturday. That’s also why right now there’s a new undisputed king in the world of swimming. All hail King Lochte.
George Chen still can’t believe that Phelps was at the losing end of the touch out in the 200 fly today. Share your frustration with him at email@example.com.