That distinction belongs to a free spirit by the name of Ryan Lochte, a two-time Olympian out of the University of Florida, who has muscled past Phelps since the last world championships in 2009, winning more titles, more international acclaim and the distinction of being the most accomplished swimmer on the planet in 2010.
“What Michael did in 2008 is definitely going to go down in history,” Lochte said Saturday morning. “It was amazing. But that was three years ago. We’re in 2011, so anything can happen. I know, since 2008, I’m definitely a better swimmer than I was back then. We’re definitely going to put on a show this meet.”
As Phelps’s enthusiasm for training has waned since he won eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Lochte has motored by with his head down, setting the stage for a potentially magnificent confrontation or, perhaps, an official changing of the guard, at the Summer Games in London next year. For sure, the two should provide a year of aquatic drama, beginning at the championships here that run through July 31.
Each is scheduled to swim in four individual events and as many as three relays; they will go head-to-head in the 200-meter freestyle and 200 individual medley.
“I’m kind of playing catch-up now,” Phelps, 26, said before leaving for Shanghai. “I think it’s more motivating. I remember back in 2000, 2001, I was trying to climb and climb and finally I got there. Being back in this position, I think, will be kind of fun.”
Contrast of styles
It will surely be fun for fans who have grown weary of seeing Phelps often race nothing but clocks and history. Lochte, a six-time Olympic medalist whose achievements have long been dwarfed by Phelps’s supremacy, is in many ways the competitive twin of the most decorated swimmer in history. Both boast all-around gifts, the ability to handle heavy meet workloads, excellence in the underwater portions of races and nerves of steel.
But if Lochte’s competitive acumen resembles Phelps’s, his personality could hardly be more different. With his scowls and intensity, Phelps often looks like he could rip a diving platform out of the pool deck before he gets in the water. He is routinely set off by the mere scent of an insult. Though also a furious competitor, Lochte can be a master goofball. He gets serious only after he dives in.
“Ryan is the personality,” said Austrian swimmer Markus Rogan, who attended Mount Vernon High and swam for Curl-Burke Swim Club. “Michael is the machine. It’s such a dramatic difference. Ryan is more like a Dennis Rodman. Michael is more like a Tim Duncan.”