(Updated on Aug 9: Ryan Lochte is now the second most decorated swimmer of all time, behind Michael Phelps.)
If you've been feeling somewhat emotional in the leadup to the Rio 2016 Olympics, you're not alone. At some point over the past few months, we've all been hit in the face with the realization that this Olympics will be the last in which Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte compete against one another.
The US Olympic swimming trials at Omaha in June were, some would say, a spectacle. Almost 2000 swimmers closed in, chasing an Olympic dream. Journalists from all over the world came down to cover the ‘Super Bowl of Swimming’. Tickets were sold out. And as always, it wasn't the up-and-comers people came to see. At the centre of it all, were Phelps and Lochte. Two men who have revolutionized the sport with their inspiring performances, and who've also drawn the public into personal journeys - making those formally not interested in swimming sit up and take notice.
Lochte and Phelps also happen to be two sportsmen constantly pitted against each other. But their rivalry hasn't quite reached the ranks of Federer versus Nadal or Messi versus Ronaldo. Because when looking at all record books of all swimming championships, Olympics included, Ryan Lochte is at second position to Michael Phelps.
But Lochte is always happy to admit he looks up to his friend. What should crush him, instead spurs him.
Sometimes I think I wouldn’t be the swimmer that I am today if I didn’t have Michael.
Lochte often loses to Phelps but sometimes beats him in categories over which he usually dominates, like the 200 metre IM, a record that Lochte has held since 2011. Together the swimmers, both 31, over the past dozen years, have produced the 13 fastest times in the history of the event. It's the best display of swimming’s most renowned rivalry.
During their 12-year-old international careers, whenever the two went head to head, Lochte and Phelps maintained a comfortable ferocity – at times seemingly synchronised, streaking through the water in tandem, way ahead of the other six.
Yet where Lochte’s name is accompanied by the mention that he is an eleven-times gold medallist, Phelps’ name always pairs with ‘most medalled Olympian of all time.’ Where Lochte stands in a body that is ‘wrong for swimming’, Phelps is universally known for having a torso that is ridiculously well suited to moving in water. So really, who is the better swimmer?
While Ryan Lochte is a star for his looks, laidback persona, fashion know-how and love for his family and dog, Michael Phelps is a man whose personal life was kept mostly secret until recently when he started posting pics of his son and fiancée. Lochte’s fun-loving style has earned him countless endorsements and appearances on TV and film, while Phelps’ attempt at taking it easy landed him with DUI charges and several months of rehab.
Lochte and Phelps – two friends who train together, and love the others’ presence in the pool – could not be more different.
However, theirs is a competition in which no one factor, not statistics, nor strength of diving, nor timings of splits can help us name the ultimate victor. Phelps is easily the greatest swimmer of all time, but had the world not encountered him, a similar pronouncement could be made of Lochte.
Soon, when Lochte and Phelps go heel to heel in the same 200 IM in which Lochte has the best times but Phelps has the best medal tally, Phelps will probably think of 2015 when Lochte won the event at the Arena Pro Swim Series Meet in Charlotte. Phelps, newly ‘un-retired’ couldn't even clock the times required. “I want to race Ryan and those guys. It’s frustrating falling short,” Phelps had said.
For all his startling commitment to the hard work it takes to become an athlete as excellent as himself, Phelps is no stranger to falling short. Once, he was the Phelps who marched to the pool with his head down, a boy who felt unappreciated by his father, an athlete who fought to keep up appearances of camaraderie with his coach and who, despite being the most decorated Olympian ever, suffered from a crippling feeling of self-worth.
Now the new Phelps shares photos of domestic bliss, asks reporters if they have any more questions, laughs with Lochte before and after clashes. If Phelps wins a medal at Rio, where he’ll meet Lochte in the pool for the last time, he will probably be very happy. But if he doesn't, in all this new self-assurance, he'll probably be very happy anyway.
As for Lochte, his own retirement isn't an issue yet. All that matters right now, is the conclusion to a spectacular rivalry.
Wow. Our journey’s coming to an end. Racing against each other for 13 years, it was really sentimental. It was something that I’m definitely going to cherish for the rest of my lifeFollow @yvonnehewlett