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Ryan's hope

Lochte stands in way of Phelps' quest for record

Posted: Saturday March 31, 2007 4:39PM; Updated: Saturday March 31, 2007 4:39PM
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You are Ryan Lochte. You are a great swimmer, but you are also 22 and it is 2007 and your timing is lousy. For starters, you are a backstroke ace. Backstrokers look up at the stars all the time anyway, but you look up and see Aaron Peirsol, perhaps the greatest backstroker in history. Coming into the world championships here in Melbourne, Peirsol hadn't lost a race at 200 meters since the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Oh, well, you are Ryan Lochte and you also great at the individual medley. That's the event that incorporates 50- or 100-meter legs of each stroke: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. It is perhaps the greatest test of overall swimming ability around. You would have been an Olympic and world champion by now, except for the other star who happens to swim your events: Michael Phelps.

Yes, you are Ryan Lochte, and maybe you should take up diving.

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Well, at least one of the hurdles is down. On Friday, Lochte came from behind to beat Peirsol in the 200 back, lowering the world record from 1:54.44 to 1:54.32. Peirsol led for most of the race and Lochte didn't overtake him until the final 30 meters. Lochte then turned around later in the evening and joined Phelps in leading the U.S. men's 4x200-meter relay team to another gold medal and world record, 7:10.05.

Did Lochte expect this success? Nope. "I'm in shock," he said later in the evening. "I've been chasing legends and now this has finally happened."

Now Lochte is after someone who is chasing history and he is the man presenting the obstacle rather than the one trying to avoid it. With six gold medals in six events, one fewer than Mark Spitz won at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Phelps has two more finals on Sunday: the 400-meter individual medley at about 7:30 local time on Sunday night and the 4x100-meter medley relay an hour later, a race in which he will likely swim the butterfly leg and the U.S. team will be heavily favored to win. Phelps has owned the 400 IM since he first broke a world record in the event in 2002. The last five world records in the event have belonged to Phelps, who also has seven of the fastest 10 times in history and owns the present mark of 4:08.26, set at the Olympics in 2004.

But Lochte is gaining. He chased Phelps to the world record in the 200 IM on Thursday, finishing in 1:56.19, more than a second behind Phelps, but just .25 off his previous world record. "Ryan is really stepping up at this meet," says Phelps. "You know he has a best time in him and I'll probably need one to beat him."

Hungary's Laszlo Cseh will also be in the 400 IM. Cseh has actually posted faster times than Phelps in the event in each of the last two years.

Still, the way he has been swimming in Melbourne, with Phelpsian confidence, Lochte is the primary reason it isn't time to anoint Phelps with an unbeaten label just yet. "Ryan is at that point when you start coming into your own and realizing just how good you can be," says U.S. coach Eddie Reese. "His performances may be as much a revelation to him as they are to the rest of the world."

Lochte is as mellow as they come, seemingly in a surfer's dreamland at times. The Florida grad can crack up a room with comments that often start with the worlds: "Dude, I was like . . ." A month before the championships, he flipped over the front of his moving scooter that had just nailed a pothole. He suffered a small fracture in his right foot that has not affected him here. He was lucky, just as he was the day he flew off his skateboard shortly before the Athens Olympics or the day he fell out of a tree playing hide and seek with his brother in 2002. "I may be a little accident prone," he admits.

But hey, Dude, that's what got you into swimming in the first place. Who knew when 3-year-old Ryan fell into a pool while wearing a snowsuit that it could be some sporting serendipity at play? After making sure he wouldn't drown, his parents noticed him having fun in the water and let him keep playing around.

Who knew he'd win a gold medal, swimming with Phelps on the 4x200 free relay team in Athens or that he'd become a two-time NCAA Swimmer of the Year? Who knew apparel sponsor Speedo would think enough of him to sign him recently to a 10-year contract? Who knew he would emerge as one of the world's top swimmers and a threat to topple Phelps after toppling Peirsol?

"Michael's whole plan has been to put the rest of the national team out of a job," says Ian Crocker, who finished second to Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly on Saturday. "Now, Ryan is doing the same thing."

You are Ryan Lochte. Be careful out there. But don't think, just swim. You may be able to re-write history.

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