RIO DE JANEIRO — There will come a point in Thursday night’s final of the 200-meter individual medley when Ryan Lochte will look to the lane next to him, see the greatest swimmer who has ever lived, and try to push himself into a gear he must wonder if he even has.
Lochte and Michael Phelps are friends. Rivals. They’ve been talking about the joy that it’s been to race each other for the past 12 years so often that their comments are entirely predictable. They’re both racers who bring out the best in one another. And on Thursday night they will do so, side by side, for likely the last time.
Phelps, 31, has said these Olympics will be his last. He has already won three gold medals in Rio and could potentially win as many as six. Lochte, 32, hasn’t decided what the future will hold but has found himself more in the background in Rio, with the 200 IM being his only individual event.
They are the two most decorated swimmers in Olympic history, with Lochte (whose 12 Olympic medals are second all-time to Phelps’ 25) being pushed to the backseat only because he happened to be born just a year before Michael Phelps. Lochte is Patrick Ewing to Phelps’ Michael Jordan. At another time he would have far more championship hardware. As it is, he’s respected and admired, but he’s not in the same stratosphere as Phelps.
“It’s going to take a perfect performance in order to beat him,” Lochte said. “Just because of how tough of a competitor he is. He won’t give up and that’s awesome. That’s why he brings out the best of me. And hopefully I do the same for him.”
Phelps and Lochte finished 1-2 in Wednesday night’s semifinals, with Phelps finishing a half second faster than his rival. Phelps was third after 50 meters, but he and Lochte took control on the backstroke leg before Phelps pushed ahead on the breaststroke. Thiago Pereira, a popular Brazilian swimmer, finished third.
“You can’t out Thiago,” Phelps said. “This place is going to be loud tomorrow — I’m looking forward to it.”
But from an American perspective, all eyes will be on two of the greatest swimmers to ever wear the red, white and blue. In one final clash. On their sport’s grandest stage.
“I wouldn’t say it’s all or nothing,” Lochte said. “I’m just going to enjoy racing against him tomorrow and whatever the outcome is the outcome. There’s nothing I can do.”
Which isn’t true, of course. Especially if he can somehow find that one extra gear.