One of the greatest American swimming rivalries in history resumes this weekend in Charlotte, as Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte go at it one more time.
They have been doing this for more than a decade, through three Olympics and dozens of other meets over the years – each glancing at the other on the starting blocks, wanting more than anything to touch the wall first.
Lochte is 30 now, and Phelps will hit that same landmark birthday in late June. They aren’t kids anymore, and if there ever was any hatred or jealousy between them, it has long since been buried in mutual respect.
Each has been important to the other’s career – not only because they so often team together for gold-medal relay victories, but also because each has pushed the other to be individually better since the early 2000s.
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“I think it’s one of the best rivalries in sports,” said Lochte, who has trained in Charlotte since 2013. “And the best thing about our rivalry, win or lose, is at the end of the day we’re still going to be friends. We don’t hold grudges. ... We can easily go out to dinner, hang out and not even talk about swimming. And then when we get to the pool, it’s showtime.”
Last year’s annual Phelps-Lochte show in Charlotte was canceled. Lochte had a lingering knee injury and didn’t swim in the Queen City’s annual big meet (formerly called the UltraSwim, now labeled the 2015 Arena Pro Swim Series at Charlotte). Phelps swam for only one day, winning his only “A” final on Friday night and then jetting off to watch the Preakness.
This year should be better. They could compete in Charlotte as many as five times, starting Friday in the 200 freestyle.
Phelps has earned 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold. Both of those are all-time Olympic records. But he traditionally doesn’t try to peak in Charlotte – which often results in him losing several races. He has followed that same training formula this time.
Phelps: ‘Nothing’ to lose
“Would I like to win every event this week? Sure,” Phelps said. “Who wouldn’t? But this week I would like to challenge myself to see how much I can put on the line and how much I can force my body to hurt. And just see what happens. What do I have to lose? Nothing.”
Phelps retired after the 2012 Olympics, then “un-retired” (as Lochte had long predicted he would) after less than two years.
The main news Phelps has made over the past year has been out of the pool. He pleaded guilty to a drunken driving charge for the second time in 10 years in 2014, and because of that offense, he was suspended for six months by USA Swimming. The judge also told Phelps that another offense would result in jailtime.
Although that six-month suspension has expired, Phelps also has been told by USA Swimming he cannot represent the U.S. in the 2015 World Championships.
On a more positive note, Phelps is also now engaged to be married to Nicole Johnson, a former Miss California USA. And he will soon be moving to Arizona so he can continue his training with longtime coach Bob Bowman, who recently accepted the a position as Arizona State’s swim coach.
‘Steppingstone’ to Rio
By comparison, Lochte (11 Olympic medals, five of them gold) has had a far quieter year. His big move came in 2013, when he left Gainesville, Fla., for Charlotte. David Marsh is Lochte’s coach at SwimMAC and raved Thursday about how hard Lochte trains – although like Phelps, Lochte is not trying to peak at this meet and certainly won’t win every event he enters this weekend.
Said Marsh of Lochte in the water: “One thing that does change radically ... is his skin color. He goes from tan to red to, sometimes, purple. Literally, his skin turns purple. ... He goes into deep wells, to places that others won’t go, and it’s pretty noticeable from a coaching perspective.”
Marsh and SwimMAC will have about 50 swimmers in this meet at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center.
“They range in age from 14,” Marsh said, “to....”
Then the coach turned to Lochte.
“How old are you?” Marsh asked, laughing.
“Shhhh,” Lochte said.
But while neither Phelps nor Lochte is getting any younger, they remain two of the best hopes for the U.S. at the next Olympics, in Brazil in 2016.
Charlotte is just a “steppingstone” to Brazil, they both said Thursday. The trick, as always, is stepping on that stone just a little bit faster than the other guy.