LONDON — The retiring star with more gold medals than anyone. The friendly rival who intends to be the biggest star in London.
Michael Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte.
What a way to start eight days of swimming at the Olympic pool!
The two Americans will go head-to-head today in the 400-meter individual medley, a grueling race encompassing all four strokes, an appropriate way for one or the other to fire the first salvo in this most intriguing of rivalries.
“A very rough race,” said Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, smiling at the possibilities. “It will be a coach’s dream, but also a spectator’s dream. It will be fantastic.”
For Phelps, it’s a chance to add to his record total of 14 gold medals and become the first male swimmer to win the same event at three consecutive Olympics. But Lochte is the defending world champion and defeated Phelps rather easily at the U.S. trials in June.
Lochte is certainly not lacking for confidence.
“Right after Beijing, I had a four-year plan for getting here to London,” he said. “I thought I could go a lot faster. I knew I could, just because of the training I’ve done. That’s why I knew this was going to be my year.”
Lochte started following the same training regimen used by burly athletes who can compete in Strongman competitions – rolling large tires, tossing kegs, dragging chains. He believes it’s made him stronger than anyone else in the pool. He believes it’s the edge he needs to beat Phelps, and everyone else.
“It’s going to pay off,” Lochte said. “I just know it.”
The Phelps-Lochte showdown won’t be the only event on the opening night of swimming.
The home crowd will be cheering on Britain’s Hannah Miley in the women’s 400 IM, where she’ll be competing against American teenager Elizabeth Beisel and California-based Katinka Hosszu, the latest in a long line of Hungarian medley specialists. The men’s 400 freestyle figures to be a tussle among China’s Sun Yang, South Korea’s Park Tae-hwan and France’s Yannick Angel. Ranomi Kromowidjojo leads the Flying Dutch in the women’s 4x100 free relay.
The Americans will look to challenge with a relay squad that potentially includes Natalie Coughlin, who won six medals in Beijing but didn’t even qualify for an individual event for these games. The 29-year-old was knocked off at the U.S. trials by an emerging wave of teenage stars, including Missy Franklin, but managed to claim a spot on the team as a possible relay swimmer by finishing sixth in the 100 free.