By Shane Thomas
Four years ago, there was only one name in the pool worth speaking about; Michael Phelps. The Baltimore Bullet set Beijing alight, winning a record eight gold medals, and writing his name into the annals of sporting history for time immemorial. It was an astonishing achievement, arguably the greatest in the history of sport.
However, London's Aquatic Centre may be the setting for swimming's next superstar. Phelps countryman, Ryan Lochte will arrive as not just an equal to Phelps, but maybe his superior. After playing a significant role in helping Phelps to his eight golds (being part of America's 4/200 metre freestyle relay team), Lochte may end up denying Phelps his place on top of the podium this time around.
While always one of the world's most accomplished swimmers, Lochte transitioned from "very good" into "world-class" at last year's World Championships in Shanghai. Phelps arrived still basking in the glow of his success in China three years previous, but suffered a rude awakening as Lochte beat him in the 200 metre medley, also breaking the world record.
And while Phelps and Lochte teamed up with Peter Vanderkaay and Ricky Berens to win gold in the 4/200 metre freestyle relay, it was telling that Lochte swam the final (anchor) leg rather than his more celebrated compatriot. By the end of the meet, Lochte had won six medals, five gold and a bronze. It was clear to see that the balance of power in the pool had shifted towards the Floridian.
Knowing that he had a legitimate contender to his throne, Phelps endeavored to knuckle down and put the work in leading up to the American trials to qualify for London 2012. But Lochte is far from eager to let Phelps regain his place as America's pre-eminent swimmer. They were involved in two titanic tussles in the 200 metres & 400 metres individual medley. Lochte beating Phelps in the 400 metres, while Phelps struck back, winning in the 200.
The margins of victory spoke volumes. In the 400, Lochte only beat Phelps by a sliver; 0.83 seconds. It was even closer in the 200, as Phelps triumphed over Lochte by a miniscule 0.09 seconds.
I know I've mentioned Phelps in this post as much as I've mentioned Lochte, but that's meant as a compliment. When a man does what Phelps did four years ago, your achievements have to be measured against them. It is to Lochte's credit that he has proven he has what it takes to defeat the great man. From being an ostensible understudy, Lochte's now grabbing the spotlight for himself.
However, there's no traces of the film All About Eve at play here. Lochte and Phelps remain good friends, and in tandem, are certain to bring America more relay golds in the pool. But their contests in the 200m and 400m medley will be must-see television. After the trials, NBC were reputedly salivating at the prospect of screening the Lochte vs Phelps battle for supremacy this summer. If anything, Lochte arrives in London with the edge, and if he can be the victor on sport's grandest stage, he'd go from being one of the best swimmers of his generation, to one of the best ever.
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