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Lochte was good at a lot of sports—as a 10-year-old soccer player he could banana a corner kick into the net—and didn't focus on swimming until the family moved to Florida when he was 11. After a friend beat him for the 13--14 age-group high-point trophy at the 1998 Junior Olympics in Gainesville, Ryan was unusually quiet on the drive home. "What's wrong?" asked Steve. "I got beat," said Ryan. "What are you going to do about it?" asked Steve. Ryan turned to him and, with a look of adolescent determination, vowed, "I'm never going to let it happen again!"
Lochte's dismissals from practice dropped from three times a week to once a year. By the time he was a junior at Spruce Creek High in Port Orange, he was attracting college recruiters. When Troy, the coach at Florida, attended the state championships in 2001, he saw firsthand that Lochte was a unique character. Minutes before the 500 free final was due to go off, Steve and Troy found Ryan in a nearby gym, shooting baskets in his racing suit. "I said, 'Ryan, what the heck are you doing? You're up in the next heat!' " recalls Steve. "He says, 'One more shot, Dad.' He makes the basket, says 'Yeah!' grabs his cap and goggles and runs out of the gym. Gregg looks at me like, I'm recruiting this kid?" After Ryan won the race by more than 10 seconds with a personal best of 4:25.54, Troy said, "I want him."
After winning the 2004 SEC and NCAA titles in the 400 IM during his sophomore year at Florida, Lochte made the '04 Olympic team by finishing fourth in the 200 free and second, to Phelps, in the 200 IM at the trials. The resulting awards-podium tableau—Phelps at the top, Lochte a step below—would be repeated virtually every time the two swam head-to-head at a major event over the next four years. Before last summer, Lochte's best chance to knock off Phelps might have been in the 400 IM in Beijing. Lochte had lost to Phelps by a fingernail at the Olympic trials, but he came in a distant third at the Games, behind Phelps and Hungary's Laszlo Cseh. Having slept through the team meeting about the dos and don'ts of being in China, he was still suffering the effects of an intestinal virus that hit him after he brushed his teeth with tap water. "It sucked, because I had trained four years for that, and then I did something stupid and got sick," says Lochte. "But I got an Olympic medal. I was proud of that."
Three days later Lochte had recovered enough to swim the second leg of the world-record-setting 4 × 200 free relay, and two days after that, he pulled off an impressive double: He won the 200 back in a world-record 1:53.94 and followed that 27 minutes later with third place in the 200 IM, again behind Phelps and Cseh. It was a good meet overall, but Lochte didn't dwell on it for long.
After every swim season, Lochte mentally puts himself, as he calls it, "back to the bottom" of swimming's hierarchy, to begin the chase to the top again. His injuries often necessitate that mind-set. A few months after he set the current world record in the 200 IM and won another individual gold in the 400 IM at the 2009 worlds in Rome (Phelps didn't swim either event), Lochte tore his left meniscus break dancing in his Gainesville split-level. Temporarily hobbled and gaining weight, he quit the fast food he had relied on for fuel (in Beijing he gained 15 pounds consuming virtually nothing but McDonald's for fear of contracting another stomach bug) and started eating more lean meats and salads. He reworked his breaststroke to de-emphasize his kicking (to take the stress off his knees), and he added more butterfly training. In 2010 he added a fourth day per week of strength training—a Strongman routine that includes tossing beer kegs, flipping tractor tires and whipping heavy boat ropes. He never doubted he would eventually prevail over Phelps, which puts him in a very tiny club.
"Michael has destroyed a lot of people psychologically," says Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman. "There are a number of swimmers who came up against Michael, found it impossible to beat him and just gave up. But Ryan was never fazed."
Phelps, who has won a record 14 Olympic gold medals, has little left to prove in swimming. Lochte, who has won three golds, including one individual, feels he has yet to peak. "What Michael did in '08, and what he's capable of, it pushes me every day in practice because I want to be just like that. I want to beat him," says Lochte of his regular spades partner at national team camps. "He knows I'm coming. So he knows he has to keep training. We help each other out that way."
Lochte's moment has arrived. As he prepares to swim six events in Shanghai starting this Sunday—the 4 × 100 and 4 × 200 free relays, the 400 IM, the 200 back and the 200 IM and 200 free, the latter two of which will likely be battles with Phelps—he is stronger, fitter and more confident than he's ever been. He has money (four major sponsors pay him endorsement fees that total in the high six figures annually), a measure of celebrity and a platform to indulge two of his passions, design and fashion. A shoe obsessive who keeps his 138 pairs, mostly high-tops, in a fastidiously kept walk-in closet, Lochte has designed a signature collection of flip-flops for Speedo as well as the one-of-a-kind Martian shoes, and he has ideas for half a dozen other distinctive kicks. But his favorite part of success is being someone to whom little kids look up. "Every time I sign an autograph," he says, "I feel like I'm doing it for the first time."
When he was seven, Lochte and his family attended the 1992 Olympic trials in Indianapolis. Finding himself alone in a hotel elevator with an Olympian and his coach, Lochte asked for an autograph. The swimmer, whom Lochte is too polite to name, refused. "I was crushed," says Lochte. "I thought, If I'm ever in that position, I will never get like that. I know what that feels like to a little kid."
So Lochte signs, happily, and he gives away all but a handful of his medals, usually to little kids but sometimes to people who have had an impact on him. DeLancey, the strength coach, displays Lochte's 200 backstroke gold from the 2007 worlds (representing Lochte's first world record) on a shelf in his office. Inside the wooden case Lochte wrote: "Matt, thank you for everything. I wouldn't be where I am without you."