The US Olympic swimming trials at Omaha in June were nothing short of a festival. Almost 2,000 swimmers descended to chase an Olympic dream. Journalists from the world over came down to televise the Super Bowl of Swimming. Pools were constructed after two years of planning, within two weeks and rapidly filled with two million gallons of water. And the tickets were sold out. But at the centre of the spectacle at the CenturyLinks Centre were Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Two men who have changed swimming not just with their inspiring individual performances in it, but also by charting personal journeys that have made people hitherto uninterested in swimming take note of the sport.
Lochte and Phelps also happen to be two sportsmen who are constantly pitted against each other. Yet theirs has never been the rivalry that has assumed the ranks of Federer versus Nadal or Messi versus Ronaldo, nor has there been a frenzy to determine who is the better swimmer. Because for all record books of all swimming championships including the Olympics, Ryan Lochte is at a second position to Michael Phelps.
The medals say Phelps, and Lochte has always been happy to play teammate and give graceful competition to Michael, often losing to him but sometimes beating him in categories over which he has had a fierce grip, like the 400 metre Individual Medley. In their 12-year-old international careers, in most events where the two have gone head to head, Lochte and Phelps with their side-by-side central positions, with their one-third of a second differences and with their powerful shoulders moving in the same rhythm until the last touch of the wall, have often appeared as a synchronised act of two swimmers streaking through the water in tandem, way ahead of the other six.
Yet where Lochte’s name comes with the mention that he is an eleven-times gold medallist, Phelps’s mention comes with an almost venerable ‘most medalled Olympian of all time.’ Where Lochte stands in a body that is ‘wrong for swimming’ even by the admission of his own coach, Phelps is universally acknowledged to have a torso that is ridiculously well suited to move in the water, minimising drag.
Where Ryan Lochte is star of his own failed reality show and a popular meme, Michael Phelps is a man on whose personal life no one knew anything about until recently but who now Instagrams photographs of his infant son and fiancée. Where Ryan Lochte makes news because he has joined Tinder ahead of the Olympics in his search for the perfect companion, Phelps’ victories almost always feature a shot of his mother standing breathlessly and celebrating wildly in the stand with the rest of his family.
Lochte and Phelps – for two people who train together, have been friends and love each others’ presences in the pool – could not be more different.
The Omaha trials, however, was the last time that the 31-year-old Phelps and the 32-year-old Lochte would compete on American soil. Lochte was fighting a groin injury, a botched schedule which had him suffering an airplane delay and an impromptu 14 hour long road trip to reach Omaha, and of course, Michael Phelps. Phelps, on the other hand, was trying to become the first man in the USA to compete in the Olympics for the fifth time. His physical journey to Omaha may have been smoother than Lochte’s but for Phelps, the trials of overcoming swimming suspensions following DUIs for driving under influence of alcohol, and then rehab, have been no easier than the ones in the pool.
Phelps qualified for the 100 metre fly, the 200 metre fly and the 200 metre individual medley. In the last category, Phelps finished at 1:55.91, beating Ryan Lochte who swam alongside him and took 1:55.62 to swim the long course. Coming in second to Phelps has made it possible for Lochte to qualify for the Rio Olympics, and now the stage is set for a final show of a rivalry that seems to only have benefitted those locked in it.
A career spent at Phelps’s heels
At times, the poetic nature of it is almost too much to bear even for the most seasoned of commentators and sports writers. For instance, when Phelps and Lochte walked out to their individual diving boards in the 200 metre IM, Lochte (who was directly behind Phelps) accidently stepped on Michael’s heels, causing Phelps to turn around and ask Ryan if he was planning to “mess him up” and Ryan taking part in the banter with an emphatic “No, no, no.” But that is how this rivalry has played out – never taking the form of a saga, but with Lochte always at Phelps’s heels.
The lure to pronounce that their personal nature has shaped the trajectories of both Phelps’ and Lochte’s careers is rather strong. Lochte’s image was one loosely crafted around his laidback persona – a persona whose value was intensely utilised for marketing purposes. He was taught swimming by his parents, yet driven out from their practice sessions because he would disturb other children.
Unlike Phelps, who has been fuelled by an almost divine sense of unflagging committment, Lochte’s major impetus to do well came after a loss at the Junior Olympics when he was 14, when he resolved to train seriously.
This is a vow that Lochte has had to retake.
In the lead up to the 2012 London Olympics, Lochte injured his knee while breakdancing and his insistence on not letting the injury affect his night led him to remain out of the pool for seven months straight in 2010. Lochte used the break to reassess his goals, employ Matt DeLancy as his strength coach and shed his McDonalds binging habits. In the London 400 metre Individual Medley, Lochte dominated the race, edging past everyone else at 4:05.18.
Michael Phelps, who was the two time gold medal defender in the 400 IM, struggled to finish at fourth place. Yet, Phelps remained the world record holder in the 400 IM. Lochte, of course, placed second and now that he has not qualified for the same event at Rio, this is as high as he will go in the 400 IM.
However, theirs is a competition in which no single factor, like statistics, or strength of diving, or timings of splits can come to your aid in pronouncing a victor. Phelps is easily the greatest swimmer of all time, but in any other time had the world experienced Ryan Lochte, chances are that a similar pronouncement would be made of him.
One who races for noise inside waters, the other who races for the noise outside
Come August, when Lochte and Phelps go heel to heel in the same 200 IM in which Lochte has the best times but Phelps has the best medal tally, Phelps will probably think of that time in 2015 when Lochte won the same event at the Arena Pro Swim Series Meet in Charlotte but a fresh-from-retirement Phelps could not even clock the times required to compete in the A category. “I want to race Ryan and those guys. It’s frustrating falling short,” Phelps had said.
For all his startling commitment to the hard work it takes to become an athlete as excellent as him, Phelps is no stranger to falling short. He may not have opened up in any media interactions earlier, but ahead of the trials in Omaha, Phelps along with his coach Bob Bowman and members of his family, spoke to ESPN’s Wayne Drehs.
In what will easily emerge as one of the most important sports features of our times, Drehs sheds light on not just the Phelps who marches out to the pool with his head bowed down, absorbed in his headphones, but also the Phelps who felt unappreciated by his father, who wrestled to keep up appearances of camaraderie with his coach and who, in spite of being the most decorated Olympian who inspired many, suffered from a crippling ebb of self-worth.
The Phelps that emerged on the other side of the essay was a Phelps who would be sharing photographs of his domestic bliss on social media, asking reporters if they had any more questions, and laughing with Ryan Lochte before and after clashes. If Phelps wins a medal at Rio, where he will meet Lochte in the pool for the last time, he will perhaps be very happy. But if he does not, chances are that in all his solitude, he will be very happy nonetheless.
When you are racing inside the water the motions of eight people streaking through it makes it difficult for any sound to reach your ears. When you do strokes like the butterfly over 100 meters, you alternatively plunge into and rise above the water, alternatively hearing the applause of the audience and in the next moment plunging into the deathlike blank noise of the water.
The white noise of the water is awfully peaceful and you have no choice but to be alone with yourself in it. The noise of the spectators validates careers. Michael Phelps, it seems, lives his life craving for the noise of the inside of the waters. Ryan Lochte lives it for the noise of the outside.