Ryan Lochte has been building toward the London Games since he walked away from Beijing dissatisfied four years ago.
His results — two gold medals, two bronze, a couple of world records and the first individual title of his Olympic career — would be more than enough for most swimmers.
Not for the surfer dude from Daytona Beach, Fla.
Lochte believed he was capable of so much more, saying, “I wanted to get faster.” So he changed his diet — out with his favorite candy and sugary sodas — and intensified his training in and out of the water. Inspired by watching Strongman competitions on television, he incorporated throwing tires and dragging heavy chains into his routine. The results started coming.
Last summer, Lochte won five golds, one bronze and set the first world record since high-tech body suits were banned over eight days at the world championships. Most notably, he beat Michael Phelps in both their matchups.
But Lochte didn’t see himself as the top dog. Mentally, he cast himself as the underdog, a role he’s known well while swimming in the Phelps era.
“I knock myself down to the bottom of the totem pole,” Lochte said at the time.
He spent the past year building himself back up to the top.
Phelps was already there, having rededicated himself since last summer.
“He will always be there no matter what,'” Lochte said.
The swimmer with 14 Olympic gold medals — including eight from his historic performance in Beijing — beat Lochte in three of four events at the U.S. trials last month.
Lochte readily acknowledges Phelps as “the world’s best swimmer ever.” Yet he’s not intimidated by the man he once lost 17 straight races against in the 200-meter individual medley.
“I always feel like I can win everything. It’s just how my mind works,” said Lochte, competing in his third Olympics. “I know I can win and I know I can swim multiple events back-to-back and I think that’s what keeps me going.”
The Lochte-Phelps rivalry, so compelling at the U.S. trials when they were separated by a few ticks of the clock, will surely be one of the highlights of the London Games.
“Because of what they have accomplished there has never been this much exposure for swimming,” said U.S. Olympian Tyler Clary, who often competes against the two stars. “They push the best out of each other every time they get in the pool.”
They’ll swim against each other twice: in the 200 and 400 individual medleys. The 400 IM comes up on the first day of competition next Saturday.
“I don’t want him to win. He doesn’t want me to win,” Phelps said. “It’s kind of like when we step on the pool deck, that’s our field, our battlefield, and we do everything we can to try to get our hands on the wall first.”
Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, questions how much the rivalry fuels Phelps.
“The main competition is himself. I think he’s spurred on by having people to race, I think he likes that,” Bowman said. “But I think the primary measure of success is did he hit the time he wanted to hit.”
Lochte isn’t caught up in what Phelps is doing in or out of the pool.
“I’m lost in my own world and I just stay there,” he said.
Lochte’s world is as colorful as Phelps’ is strictly regimented. Lochte’s idea of fun away from the pool involves skateboarding off ramps, surfing and riding scooters. In his only nod to a more sedate life, he draws.
Typically, Lochte arrives at major meets with tales of a recent injury from his adventures on wheels. Phelps’ favorite pursuits are golf and poker.
Lochte is outgoing and actively engages his fans on Twitter. His tanned, chiseled body and formerly floppy hair draw lusty comments from women young and old. He hates disappointing anyone seeking an autograph or photo. Even if his generous instincts irk coach Gregg Troy.
At the U.S. trials, Lochte stopped early in the meet to chat with reporters instead of moving quickly to the warmdown pool. Troy appeared and hissed at his star before yanking him away by the arm.
“It’s a little bit of a weakness,” Troy said. “He has to learn to say no once in a while.”
Phelps is the guarded, gawked-at superstar who never moves about alone. He’s in his own world in the pre-race ready room, ear buds pumping music and his eyes in a steely gaze. Lochte saves his favorite rap music for later and often walks out smiling.
“If I win, I win,” he said. “If I don’t, I don’t. It’s not the end of the world.”
Lochte’s easygoing, goofy nature and his props — diamond grillz on his teeth on the podium, crazily colored hightops, sunglasses bearing his favorite made-up expression of “Jeah!” — make him a relatable star with fans and teammates.
“Ryan has a great personality that I think a lot of people can learn from,” said Ricky Berens, who will swim relays with Lochte and Phelps in London. “He’s always coming to meets and he has fun with it.”
Elizabeth Beisel, a 19-year-old on her second Olympic team, trains with Lochte in Gainesville, Fla., and marvels at how he deals with pressure.
“He cares but he’s much more laid-back,” she said. “He can tell if I’m tense and he’s like, ‘Yo, Beis, chill out,’ so I definitely need to be around him.”
During downtime at the Olympic village, Phelps and Lochte partner for ultra-competitive games of spades, where their shared penchant for high risk means they win big or lose badly.
“We still take it to Ricky Berens and Cullen Jones all the time and we have to keep that tradition,” Lochte said.
Phelps insists London is his farewell meet, having long ago vowed he would not swim past 30. He’s 27 and Lochte turns 28 on Aug. 3 — the next-to-last day of swimming. Lochte has already said he will keep going to 2016.
“I told myself I’ll quit swimming once I stop having fun and right now I’m having a blast,” he said. “I’m not thinking about the money or medals or anything else, I’m just having fun racing.”
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