Unlike Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, who continue to add to their medal collection, Ryan Lochte has only one shot at an individual award at the Rio Olympics.
One last chance to step onto the podium by himself and not with relay teammates.
His final opportunity in the Olympic Aquatics Stadium pool comes Thursday in his favorite event against his favorite rival – the 200 individual medley with Phelps.
This was not the Olympics Lochte had in mind when he changed coaches, moved from Gainesville to Charlotte and renewed his commitment to the sport two years ago.
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Lochte, 32, thought Rio might finally be the Games when it was “my turn” to shine in the spotlight Phelps has monopolized since 2004. Then again, Lochte said that in 2012.
But Phelps looks better than ever at age 31, going three for three in finals so far to run his expanding gold medal record to 21. Fans love him all over again after his 2014 stint in rehab and his tender cuddle Tuesday with three-month-old son Boomer after winning the 200 butterfly. Katie Ledecky, who swam a spectacular anchor split in the 4 X 200 freestyle relay on Wednesday night to clinch gold for the U.S., has emerged as Phelps’ co-star. She began the leg almost a full second behind Australia but made it up and then some to win by 1.84 seconds, powering to the fastest split of the field by .9.
Where does that leave Lochte? With one egg left in his basket, another 200 IM showdown against Phelps. Lochte joined with Phelps to win gold Tuesday in the 4 X 200 free relay, but he’s gotten more attention for a dye job gone awry. Lochte, who grew up in Daytona Beach, colored his hair with the intention of achieving a blue tint in celebration of his fourth Olympics, but it came out silver, making him look 20 years older, and has now taken on a Brazilian green shade because of the chlorine in the water.
Lochte finished second swimming in an adjacent lane to Phelps in their semifinal Wednesday. Phelps pulled ahead during a strong breaststroke leg. Lochte closed with a fast final 50 freestyle. The two exchanged a fist bump as they looked up at their times, Phelps No. 1 among qualifiers in 1:55.78, Lochte in 1:56.28.
“Any chance I can get to race Michael, it’s the best,” Lochte said. “We’ve created a good rivalry and good friendship. All I know is I love racing against him. Toughest competitor ever.”
If Phelps were a country, he would rank 39th in the all-time Olympic gold medal standings; he’s won 25 medals overall as the most decorated male Olympic swimmer. Lochte has won six Olympic golds, 12 total as the second-most decorated male Olympic swimmer. In any other era, he would be a swimming god. Bad timing. Yet he can take credit for pushing Phelps, who absolutely hates to lose.
“Ryan brings out the best in me,” Phelps said. “We’re racers.”
They are also roommates. On Thursday, before they race, they’ll be “goofing off, playing card games, just a normal life,” Lochte said. “We don’t talk about swimming. It’s just really relaxed.”
Lochte had hoped to swim five or six events in Rio. But because a groin injury wrecked his Olympic Trials last month, he is down to the last of his two events.
“I think Ryan and I have probably grown closer as friends this year than in the past, so we’ll have one more time to hop in the pool and duke it out,” Phelps said. “The history we have is something special and something I’ve never had with any other competitor of mine. We’ve been racing for 12 years, and with one more battle, it will be fun.”
Phelps has won every Olympic 200 IM since 2004. Lochte, the world record-holder at 1:54.00, has won every world championships 200 IM since 2009. Phelps has beaten Lochte every time they’ve met in the finals of the event at the Olympics. Together, they own the top 10 fastest times in history in a race that tests swimmers’ versatility, strength and speed. They’ll meet one more time.
“It’s going to take a perfect performance to beat him,” Lochte said. “Win or lose, we’re still good friends.”