“Bob and I have been a lot more relaxed over the last four years, and we’re having fun,” Phelps said. “This is the closure. It’s really how many toppings do I want on my sundae?
“I have had a lot of moments where, I don’t know if I’ll say ‘get choked up,’ but be more emotional, because these are the last competitive moments that I will have in my career. There are going to be a lot of firsts and a lot of lasts this week.”
The quiet introspection and easy grins will disappear Saturday night, when Phelps tugs on his swim cap and presses his goggles to his eyes for his first of seven attempts to add to his collection of 14 career Olympic medals, three short of the record.
Saturday’s opener might offer the best race of all.
Competition will rage in the 400-meter individual medley as Phelps competes in an event he hates and in which he has recently lost to his biggest rival, the swimmer who manhandled him in this event at the U.S. Olympic trials in June.
That would be Ryan Lochte, who will be seeking six gold medals here, including two in events Phelps also swims. The duel will begin with Saturday’s much-anticipated event, which represents an extraordinary kickoff for the Olympic competition.
“It’s got me captivated, and I don’t coach either of them,” said U.S. Coach Dave Marsh, who coaches Olympian Cullen Jones and others in Charlotte. “You have this one last shot, this clash. I’m savoring this.”
The winner will open his Olympic Games with an enormous boost that will have psychological, physical, historic and promotional elements. These Games won’t determine the best Olympic swimmer in history — Phelps already has locked up that claim — but they might determine the best man of the meet. Lochte, it should be noted, plans to be that man.
“I just know that I’m ready,” Lochte said Thursday. “I had a four-year plan. This is the year that I’m putting everything into it . . . I’m not going for silver or bronze. I’m going for gold. . . . This is the big show. This is what I’ve been working for.”
Indeed, as Phelps spent much of the past four years deciding whether he was interested in pursuing another heavy Olympic workload — he had vowed he would never swim the taxing 400 individual medley again — Lochte put his head down and worked harder than ever. He cleaned up his diet, got rid of his moped and adopted a grueling exercise routine that involves throwing tires and dragging massive chains — and, he claims, gives him an advantage over every other swimmer at these Games.
“No other swimmer in the world is doing what I’m doing in training,” Lochte said. “I think that’s one of the edges I have over everyone. . . . All I can really say is, look at my swimming the past two years: I’ve gotten faster.”
Lochte, a six-time Olympic medal winner, also has piled up the achievements. In 2011, he became the first person to set a long-course world record in the post-supersuit era, lowering Phelps’s mark in the 200 individual medley while also edging him in the race at the world championships in Shanghai. There, Lochte cemented his status as the top male swimmer since the 2008 Summer Games.
But at the recent U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha, Phelps beat Lochte in two of three head-to-head finals, seemingly regaining the edge.
Lochte’s only victory at the trials came in the 400 medley, where he topped Phelps with a time of 4 minutes 7.06 seconds to 4:07.89. After the race, both men said they could swim faster. Bowman called Phelps’s turns “horrendous,” suggesting he could pick up nearly two seconds by improving his pushes off the walls.
“It’s always a challenge to have things go perfectly,” Phelps said. “From the very first night, it is going to be a very challenging race; it’s going to be an exciting race. . . . This is something I’ve been looking forward to for a while. It’s going to be a fun one to start.”
Bowman said Phelps’s decision to compete in the event — by all accounts the most demanding in the sport — after years of hedging would provide a promotional lift to the sport as a whole.
“It will be tremendously exciting, and a very tough race,” Bowman said. “It will be a coach’s dream to see how all that shakes out, and also a spectator’s dream. It will be fantastic.”
“And this will be our last one,” Phelps said. “We will never have another one again.”