With 78 days till London, Phelps-Lochte rivalry is just heating up

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Michael Phelps was putting in practice laps. Bob Bowman was standing on the pool deck, an arm’s length from the water, directing the show. In strolled Ryan Lochte, an illustration of style. Sparkling silver necklace. Straight-out-of-the-box white shoes. And, in one of his signature fashion twists, a black backpack decorated like a “Hello my name is” sticker but without the name.

Lochte slipped around Phelps’ coach to prepare for his workout. Of course, no introduction was necessary.

The who’s-No. 1 debate between Phelps and Lochte is the U.S. storyline of the London Olympics, contrary to the previous two Games when Phelps had the marquee to himself. The torch was lit in Olympia, the birthplace of sport, on Thursday. The Games are 78 days away. Lochte is entered in an absurd nine events at this weekend’s Charlotte UltraSwim and feeling just as ambitious about this summer.

“I feel like it’s about to pay off,” Lochte said. “I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.”

Phelps will swim two ho-hum events in Charlotte, the 200-meter freestyle (versus Lochte, on Friday) and the 200 butterfly. It’s paltry compared to Lochte’s “I’ll-swim-anything” approach to early-season meets. The difference is noticeable, but not too notable at a meet where who wins and in what times can be toss-ups based on training schedules. Phelps swam eight events at each of the last two Olympics. Lochte made two in 2004 and four in 2008. And now they’ve switched.

As Phelps peeled back after Beijing, Lochte ramped up. Phelps won five golds and one silver at the 2009 world championships. Lochte won four gold and a bronze. Phelps won another five events at the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships. Lochte won six, bettering Phelps for the first time at a major meet.

Then came the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, where Lochte won five golds and one bronze to Phelps’ four golds, two silvers and one bronze. Lochte won both head-to-heads, the 200 free and 200 individual medley, by a combined half-second over Phelps. That was enough to earn Lochte the title of the new world’s best swimmer.

“The difference in those races in Shanghai was literally a turn in both races,” Bowman said.

Phelps is not used to leaving meets with a grab bag of medals rather than a chest of gold. He plans to retire after the London Olympics, his fourth Games. He’s known for his secret goals, written on a piece of paper only he and Bowman can see. His drive, which dried up after 2008, is back, both coach and swimmer said. Lochte is part of the reason why.

“Sure, it has helped me that I’ve been on the receiving end of just getting a butt whoopin’ for the last three years,” Phelps said. “I haven’t been too successful in racing against Ryan. Hopefully this summer I can put myself in a better position to have myself more prepared.”

Phelps has seemed the man of old so far in 2012. He owns the fastest U.S. times in the 200 free, 200 IM and 400 IM of 2012. Phelps had said after Beijing he would cut down on his eight-event Olympic schedule and definitely drop the 400 IM, his most grueling event. It’s suddenly back on the radar, though Phelps won’t say if he’ll swim it at the Olympics trials in six weeks.

When Lochte was asked about it, he didn’t stutter.

“I knew after Shanghai [the 2011 world championships] that [Phelps] was going to swim it [in London],” said Lochte, who won the 400 IM in Shanghai after taking third in the event behind Phelps in Beijing. “There was no doubt in my mind that 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?”

It would certainly make sense for Phelps to swim the 400 IM and add a third showdown with Lochte in London. Phelps has always used his popularity to push up his sport. At the 2004 Olympics, he took on giants Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 200 free. He didn’t have much of a shot at winning — he took bronze in an American record — but it became known as the Race of the Century and was probably the biggest single event of those Games.

That Phelps stepped up to that challenge reinforced his growing reputation. But his checkered headlines in and out of the pool the last few years have stripped some of that aura.

“I think Michael will still kick their ass, but I think that they’re probably not as intimidated,” Bowman said. “He has to kind of re-earn that. He kind of let them go for a couple years. Now everybody’s taking their shots and thinks he’s beatable. And he is on certain days, but usually not the big days.”

That doesn’t apply to Lochte, who still calls Phelps the best but can now better him on those big days. The biggest are 78 days away. Those will prove who really is No. 1.

“Everybody will know after, that’s the great thing about this summer,” Bowman said. “All the other summers, everybody’s in all these various states of flux and good and bad. But after this summer, that’ll be it. We’ll all know.”