Remember that dude on the left in the picture above? His name is Michael Phelps. It's likely that the last time you heard from that goofy-looking guy was when The News of the World published a photo of him enjoying what we're sure was medically prescribed marijuana.
Well, now he's back to swimming and at last week's world championships in Shanghai he showed that he's slowly gaining back the form that won him a record eight gold medals back in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics. The problem is, the guy on the right of that picture will be in London next summer too.
It has been three years since Phelps captivated the world by breaking Mark Spitz's record and taking home an unprecedented haul of gold medals. While the 14-time Olympic champion has taken it easy and really not pushed himself since then, Ryan Lochte has done the exact opposite. While he's known as a bit of a free spirit and is as unconventional as it gets outside of swimming, when Lochte gets in the pool he's a serious competitor.
Lochte's star has been on the rise over the past year. After losing head-to-head to Phelps in the 200 and 400-meter individual medleys 20 straight times over seven years at major events, Lochte finally edged him out in the 200 IM at the U.S. Nationals last summer. Then, two weeks later at the Pan Pacific Games he won six gold medals. Many thought at that moment he had surpassed Phelps as the world's best swimmer.
The 27-year-old Lochte is no stranger to the Olympics. He took home individual gold in the 200 backstroke at the Beijing Games, while adding a gold in the 4x200 relay, and bronze in both the 200 and 400 IMs. In 2004 at the Athens Olympics, Lochte won gold in the 4x200 relay and silver in the 200 IM. But "The Lochtenator" (can we please think of another nickname for him?) knows that next summer could be his chance to etch his name in the history books as Phelps has already done.
Last week in Shanghai, Phelps and Lochte went head-to-head again, but this time Phelps was serious. After years of blowing off training sessions, the 26-year-old says he is once again focused. His goal is to be at his best in London next summer. Over the past eight months, Phelps has put down the golf clubs, shoved aside the distractions and put all his energy into preparing for what will likely be his final Olympics.
If last week's events were any indication, the duel between Phelps and Lochte could be the story of the 2012 Olympics. Lochte and Phelps went head-to-head twice, and Lochte got the better of his friendly rival both times. He topped Phelps in the 200 free and set a world record in the 200 IM, which was the first record to be broken since high-tech bodysuits were banned in 2009. Overall Lochte left the competition with six medals, five of them gold (one bronze), while Phelps won four golds, two silvers and a bronze.
Right now, Lochte is the man to beat in the swimming world, there's no doubt of that. But we all know what Phelps can do when he's properly motivated. As it stands, Lochte will likely enter eight events in London: the 100 and 200 backstrokes, the 200 and 400 IMs and the U.S.'s three relays. Phelps has not revealed how many events he will participate in, but he has said it will be fewer than eight.
Next summer, with both men hopefully at their best, we might see the most captivating matchup at an Olympics since close friends and (UCLA track teammates) Rafer Johnson and C.K. Yang went toe-to-toe in the Decathlon at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
I, for one, can't wait.
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