CHARLOTTE — Michael Phelps’ return to competitive swimming has been a boost for the sport — and its biggest rivalry.
Count Ryan Lochte among those happy to have it continue.
At U.S. national championships this week in Irvine, Lochte is entered in six events: the 100-meter freestyle, 200-meter freestyle, 100-meter backstroke, 200-meter backstroke, 100-meter butterfly and 200-meter individual medley. If he does not scratch any events, that could mean four matchups against Phelps.
The last time these two met was last month, at the Bulldog Grand Slam — where Lochte himself was making a return from a knee injury. Phelps finished ahead of Lochte in all three events they competed in.
Phelps’ return from retirement has given Lochte added motivation, he says.
“He’s the toughest racer I’ve ever had to go up against,” Lochte told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s a challenge to beat him because he’s so good. I’m happy he’s back. Every time I step on those blocks, a lot of swimmers think, ‘I’m swimming to get second or third because Michael’s in there.’ No. When I go on those blocks, I’m swimming to win. It’s a challenge because he doesn’t want me to win, and I don’t want him to win. We bump heads, and that’s why our rivalry is so good. We have a friendship. Win or lose, outside of the pool we’re going to be friends.”
Lochte was one of the first to publicly predict that Phelps’ retirement would be short-lived. He says he even made a bet with Phelps about it at the Golden Goggles in 2012.
“I said, ‘I guarantee you’ll be back before the Olympics,’ ” Lochte says, smiling. “He’s like, ‘No way, I’m done.’ …
“He owes me some money.”