Outgoing and unhurried, Lochte can be his own worst enemy. In the middle of one particularly grueling hour at the trials, which included the 200-backstroke final, the 200-IM final and a 100-fly semifinal, Lochte had to attend an award ceremony for the 200 back. His 100-fly race was just minutes away, yet he stopped to sign autographs. "It's a little bit of a weakness," says his coach, Gregg Troy. "He has to learn to say no once in a while."
Phelps, whose celebrity is in a different stratosphere, is less knowable. He is, in a sense, a victim of his own success. "Michael is handled, all the time," says his coach, Bob Bowman. "So all people get to see is this Olympic machine. They never see his more human side. He'd hate me to say this, but he's a very sweet boy. Even though he is this ferocious competitor and can be surly and hard to get along with sometimes, he can be one of the kindest, most empathetic people you'll ever meet."
For Bowman the most powerful moment of the Beijing Games occurred not inside the Water Cube but outside it, on a bus heading to the athletes' village. Phelps had just swum the night preliminaries in the 100 fly, in which he would earn his seventh gold. His fame soaring, he needed a lot of security help to negotiate crowds. The Chinese volunteer on the bus that night was an awkward, overweight teenage boy who, inevitably, made a move to ask Phelps for an autograph. "I gave him the look of death—Don't go near him!" recalls Bowman. "I felt bad, but that's the way it was. The kid went away and just stood there, terrified. Watching this, Michael reaches into his bag, pulls out a Sharpie and tells the kid to come over. The kid is shaking. Michael signs his volunteer shirt. You could tell the impact he had on that kid—that's the greatest moment of his life! Then, as we walked off the bus, Michael pulled out the cap he had worn to win something and gave that to the kid. Honestly, it makes me cry to think of it. Nobody sees that side of Michael."
PHELPS IS comfortable being the hunted. Lochte prefers the underdog role. After his five-gold-medal performance at the 2011 worlds, Lochte mentally took himself back to being the challenger who could never quite beat Phelps. It's a familiar role. When Lochte was a sophomore at Florida in 2004, Troy recognized that he would never compete with Phelps if he didn't improve his turns and the underwater dolphin kicks that follow. Now Lochte's walls are on par with Phelps's; his signature final turn, on which he explodes off the wall and stays underwater for the allowable 15 meters, lungs screaming, before he pops up for the final sprint, is arguably better. This year the emphasis has been on butterfly, another of Phelps's strengths, and on yardage without end.
Because his Olympic races aren't as conveniently spaced as Phelps's—the finals of two of Lochte's best events, the 200 back and the 200 IM, will go off about 30 minutes apart on Aug. 2—Lochte steeled himself with more middle-distance work than usual this year. Between pool sessions, weights, dryland exercises and a Strongman routine that included tossing beer kegs and dragging heavy chains, Lochte logged 30 to 40 hours a week of training. His races this season were often unimpressive; at the Austin Grand Prix in January, Phelps beat him in the 200 IM by almost two seconds.
Lochte's sister Megan Torrini understood her brother's strategy, but she hated watching him struggle. "I'd tell him, 'Ryan, you did horrible!' and he'd say, 'Yeah, man, I stunk up the pool!'" she says. "He'd laugh about it, but I think he does that to himself on purpose. He wants to put himself back at the bottom because he likes that challenge. It's what keeps him motivated."
For Phelps, finding motivation after the glory of Beijing wasn't so simple. He'd skip practice for weeks at a time, sometimes to sleep in, sometimes to go golfing, at least once to head out to Las Vegas with his buddies. He often thought about quitting the sport. "There were probably 10 times when I woke and was like, What am I doing?" he says. "That's when I didn't know what my goals were, I wasn't passionate about it, didn't care."
In his dithering, Phelps lost about two years of serious training. He can't pinpoint when his focus snapped into place, but he admits that losing to Lochte twice at the 2011 worlds helped rekindle his fire. After Lochte beat him in the 200 free in Shanghai, Phelps declared himself satisfied with his time, given his subpar fitness level. But when Lochte beat him again two days later in the 200 IM, Phelps was so peeved that he declined to speak to the media right afterward, an uncharacteristic move for which he later apologized. "I think it definitely pissed him off," says Lochte. "It would piss me off. It has pissed me off, getting second to him for so many years. I know what it feels like."
Lochte thinks his success against Phelps has changed what has been a friendly if not particularly close relationship. "Before, I wasn't much of a threat to him," Lochte says. "Now we don't talk as much." Phelps disagrees. "We still joke around, we still talk at meets," he says. "I don't like it when he wins, and I'm sure he doesn't like it when I win.
"I will say this: There have been times when I haven't been in the best shape, and he has sucked every ounce of energy out of my body just to try to win a race. There have been very few people who have done that in my career. He pushes me."