Phelps vs. Lochte: An Olympic-sized rivalry that figures to take center stage at London Games

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In this lane, Michael Phelps, who has hoarded more Olympic gold medals than anyone on the planet.

In this lane, Ryan Lochte, the swimmer who whipped Phelps not once, but twice, at last year’s world championships.

This has all the makings of the hottest rivalry at the London Games.

“When I get in the water and we race each other,” Phelps said Thursday, “whatever I have in the tank is left in the pool. We do race hard against each other. We do race very well against each other. I look forward to having a number of races with him throughout the rest of the summer.”

Phelps held the upper hand on Lochte — and every other swimmer, for that matter — until the 2011 world championships in Shanghai. That served as a coming-out for the laid-back Floridian, who defeated Phelps in both their head-to-head races: the 200-meter freestyle and the 200 individual medley.

So, while Phelps may be the most celebrated swimmer in history, the one who broke Mark Spitz’s record by winning eight gold medals in Beijing, Lochte has left little doubt he expects to be the brightest star at these Olympics. “This is my time,” he keeps saying.

“I feel like that,” Lochte said. “I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but I definitely feel like that. Just all that hard work, all those hours in the pool, I feel like it’s about to pay off. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see this summer.”

He sure looked like a star on Thursday, wearing a gaudy diamond chain to a routine training session for this weekend’s Grand Prix meet in Charlotte, where he will face off against Phelps in what is essentially another prelim before the main event in London.

Rest assured, Lochte’s dominant showing in Shanghai definitely got Phelps’ attention. While the two consider themselves friends, they’ve have been racing each other for nearly a decade, building up a competitive spirit that burns especially bright when the other guy is in the next lane.

Of course, to have a truly memorable rivalry, it takes a little back and forth. For the longest time, it looked as though Phelps would always be the one who took the gold, leaving Lochte in his wake to settle for silver and bronze.

Phelps won six gold medals at the 2004 Athens Games, while Lochte, in his Olympic debut, finished second to Phelps in the 200 IM, and won gold — along with Phelps — on the 800 freestyle relay team.

At Beijing, Phelps was more focused on Spitz than Lochte, swimming into Olympic history while his fellow American turned in a performance that would have garnered headlines any other year. Lochte set a world record while winning his first individual gold medal in the 200 backstroke. He also captured another relay gold, but settled for bronze in the 200 and 400 IMs, not even close to Phelps’ world-record times.

After Beijing, Phelps took an extended break to savor the fruits of his triumph, a period of revelry that included everything from hosting “Saturday Night Live” to being photographed with a marijuana pipe. He seriously questioned whether he wanted to continue swimming, and even when he stuck to his plan to compete at one more Olympics, his heart didn’t always seem to be in it.

Lochte, on the other hand, returned to the pool with a new commitment and focus. He knew if he was ever going to be beat Phelps, he had to make a few changes: No 1 — Cut out all those trips through the drive-thru line at McDonald’s.

“I wasn’t really happy with the way 2008 turned out for me,” Lochte said. “I wanted to change some things. I started eating healthier. I actually gave up fast food. I gave up candy and potato chips and everything else. I started watching what I ate.”

That’s not all.

“I took my weight training to a new level,” he said. “I got a lot stronger, a lot bigger. I think it showed in the past three years how I progressed. So, hopefully, this summer, I’ll keep it going.”

One thing Lochte didn’t give up was his sense of humor. Fully aware the pre-Olympic hype still tilts heavily in favor of his rival, he’s been spotted in a T-shirt that says “Google Me” and showed up Thursday lugging a backpack emblazoned with the message, “Hello, My Name Is …” The next line was blank.

That said, Lochte was the undisputed star of last year’s worlds, winning four individual golds and one relay gold. His most impressive race was the 200 IM, when he not only beat Phelps, but took down the world record, showing that fast times were still possible even after high-tech suits were banned.

Phelps was no slouch. While most of the attention was on the two silvers he settled for, there were also a pair of individual golds — 100 and 200 butterfly — as well as two golds and a bronze on the relays.

Besides, it wasn’t as if Phelps got blown out of the water by Lochte. In the 200 free, the margin was 35-hundredths of a second. In the 200 IM, it was a mere 16-hundredths, as Phelps nearly beat the previous world record himself.

“The difference in Shanghai was literally a turn in both races,” said Bob Bowman, Phelps’ coach.

Bowman will be the first to concede this is not the same Phelps who broke world records in different events on the same day in 2003, nor the one who nearly eclipsed Spitz’s record in Athens and erased it in Beijing.

“They’re different people,” the coach said. “One was like a machine, one was like half-man, half-machine, and one was like a man. I like the machine part particularly. The transition,” he added, with a chuckle, “has been rough on me.”

But there’s little doubt that a motivated Phelps will be a formidable competitor in London.

As if sending a message to Lochte, he’s added the 400 IM back to his program, after vowing in Beijing he was done racing that grueling event.

Lochte wasn’t the least bit surprised.

“I knew after Shanghai he was going to swim it,” Lochte said. “If you have the world record and you’re the best in the world in that event, why wouldn’t you want to swim it? There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to swim it this summer. I’m excited. I’m looking forward to it because I feel like I’m a better swimmer, a better athlete than I was in 2008. It would definitely be pretty neat to race against him in that event again.”

Likewise, Phelps is looking forward to getting another shot at Lochte.

“I’ve been on the receiving end of a butt-whooping the last three years,” Phelps said. “I haven’t been too successful racing against Ryan. Hopefully this summer, I can put myself in a better position and have myself more prepared.”