Diving for gold and glory in London
Michael Phelps versus Ryan Lochte is the sport’s version of a perfect wave: theirs is not a match manufactured for ratings, writes KAREN CROUSE
IN THE beginning, Ryan Lochte swam at Michael Phelps’s hip and drafted off his fame. He signed with the same sports agency and the same swimwear company, and he smiled like a rakish groomsman after Phelps beat him at the 2008 Olympics in the 200- and 400-metre individual medleys.
From his perch on the deck in Beijing, Lochte observed Phelps racing as if wearing blinkers on his way to a record eight gold medals, and Lochte’s mirth hardened into mettle. He realised it was not physical or mental strength that separated them; it was strength of purpose. If Lochte was going to move out of Phelps’s slipstream, he would have to train smarter, eat healthier, lift more.
He added strongman exercises to his dry-land routine, grilled chicken breasts to his diet and two marketing mavericks to his circle. Out went greasy foods, sugary beverages and the Octagon representation he shared with Phelps.
In the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics, Lochte, who turns 28 on August 3rd, has been more focused at the pool, if no less flighty away from it. He has retained the skateboard, the sketchpad, the rococo wardrobe and the appetite for high jinks that call to mind a character in a Judd Apatow movie.
His grand plan, executed so far without a glitch, is to roll out a more user-friendly version of himself in London.
“I’m not thinking about the money or medals or anything else; I’m just having fun racing,” said Lochte, who will compete in four individual events and the 4 x 200-metre freestyle relay at the Games and possibly a sixth, as a member of the 4 x 100-metre freestyle relay team.
“Right after I get out of the pool, I’m back to being relaxed Ryan.”
Phelps could have retired to the golf links after Beijing. But as he demonstrated at the US Olympic trials, he is not ready for obsolescence. After a few fits and starts, Phelps (27) became a more streamlined version of the multifaceted machine that remade the sport in 2008, qualifying for an eight-event program in London that he has since reduced to seven.
He and Lochte will go head-to-head in both individual medleys and team up in at least one relay.
Phelps versus Lochte is the sport’s version of a perfect wave: two fierce competitors, one with the ultimate winning portfolio and the other with a winsome personality, fighting a turf war with the world bearing witness. Theirs is not a match manufactured for ratings, even though NBC has played it up in its coverage; it is an organic rivalry that is raising interest in their sport.
The US Olympic trials, held in Omaha, Nebraska, for eight days beginning in late June, attracted journalists from Australia to Europe. On the day Lochte and Phelps squared off twice, a scalper was selling tickets outside the arena.
Two weeks later, at a pre-Olympics training camp in Knoxville, Tennesse, fans began lining up at 4am. to watch the team’s 8am practice. By 7:30, an estimated 2,000 people were waiting in the rain to get inside the University of Tennessee’s 1,200-seat facility.
“When I look at what Michael and Ryan are doing to our sport right now,” said Frank Busch, the national team director for USA Swimming, “they are elevating it in ways that I don’t think any of us dreamed of.”
After the heats of the men’s 400-metre individual medley on the first morning of the trials, the mixed zone was flooded by reporters eager to speak to the main combatants. Phelps stopped, but not long enough to leave a puddle. Lochte stood and answered questions until Gregg Troy, his coach for the past decade, swooped in and dragged him by the arm to the warm-down pool.
Phelps’ journey, a mostly solitary one, was meticulously mapped out by his longtime coach, Bob Bowman. Phelps turned professional at 16 after competing in the 2000 Olympics. While he has taken college classes, Phelps missed out on the camaraderie and team-building at the core of collegiate competition.