Olympics 2012: Reflections on a Rivalry -- Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte
Olympics 2012: Reflections on a Rivalry  -- Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte
Sports are nothing without their rivalries. A good rivalry, among competitors in any sport, can be electrifying to watch. Baseball has the infamous Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. College football has the celebrated rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan. And who can forget basketball's rivalry between the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers?

Recently, with the 2012 Olympics, sports fans witnessed another intense athletic rivalry. This time, the rivalry was between two American swimmers: Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Phelps is widely regarded as both the greatest swimmer in the history of the sport and the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time. Lochte, in turn, has been the only American to consistently challenge Phelps in his pursuit of glory.

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Going into the 2012 Games, both swimmers were in positions that magnified their competitive rivalry. Phelps was entering his final Olympics and wished to end with stunning victories. Lochte, on the other hand, wanted to come out from under Phelps' shadow and make 2012 his year.

In addition to their goals, what made the Phelps-Lochte rivalry so exciting to watch in London was that it represented the final round of a rivalry that had grown steadily since 2004.

Phelps and Lochte first met at the 2004 Olympic trials, in the 200 meter individual medley (IM). Phelps won the race and Lochte, in second place, qualified for his first Olympics. This race was then repeated at the Olympics, where Phelps won gold and Lochte earned Silver, his first Olympic medal.

Following their early encounters, the rivalry began to increase substantially. Lochte came into his own, winning individual titles at the 2006 FINA Short Course World Championships and setting three world records. Phelps managed to hold him back at the 2008 Olympics, finishing first in both the 200 meter IM and the 400 meter IM. Still, it was clear that swimming's "Golden Boy" now had competition.

Lochte continued to threaten Phelps, with strong performances at the 2009 World Championships. Lochte's win in the 200 meter IM was particularly noteworthy, as it broke Phelps' own world record in the event. Lochte followed this performance in 2010 with a victory at the US National Championships, beating Phelps for the first time in the 200 meter IM. Lochte then beat Phelps again the following year at the 2011 World Championships, in both the 200 meter freestyle and the 200 meter IM.

These latter victories by Lochte created uncertainty over what would happen at the 2012 Olympic Games. Would Phelps be able to defend his medals from the previous Olympics? Or would Lochte dethrone him and become America's new swimming king?

As it turned out, the rivalry between the two swimmers ended in Phelps' favor. Lochte scored an early victory in London, defeating Phelps in the 400 meter IM. Still, he was unable to rise to further glory at the Games, notably earning a bronze medal in the 200 meter backstroke and suffering a humiliating defeat in the final leg of the men's 4x100 meter freestyle relay. And when it came time to face Phelps again, in the finals of the 200 meter IM, the challenger was again unable to dethrone the reigning champion. The last race of the Phelps-Lochte rivalry ended with Phelps once again victorious.

With Michael Phelps having now retired, Ryan Lochte is largely uncontested in his quest for Olympic gold. Lochte has stated that he will continue this quest and compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. In doing so, however, both Lochte and athletics fans in general cannot help but acknowledge the loss of one of sports' most exciting recent rivalries. Phelps-Lochte may not have the same household recognition as a rivalry like Harvard-Yale, but the swimmers were still a thrilling pair to watch.

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Nick Raithel
Contributing Writer

(Image courtesy of NBC)

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