IN SEPTEMBER 2009, Michael Phelps visited the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club in the South Bronx. The four-lane swimming pool needed repair, and the mostly African-American and Hispanic children didn't know much about Phelps or his sport. After listening to him talk about setting and sticking to goals, the kids peppered Phelps with questions: What do you eat for breakfast? Is it true you swim six hours a day? What's your dog's name?
Before he left, Phelps presented the club with a grant from his foundation along with funds from Speedo that amounted to $20,000 to help fix up the pool area and bolster the swim team. In February 2012, Phelps returned to the club to see young swimmers, wearing dark-blue phelps caps with American flags on them, churn out laps in a gleaming pool as coaches barked encouragement. When it was time for questions, a kid asked, "What's your split in the 200 freestyle?" Phelps laughed and gave the time, around 51 seconds. The children gasped. They understood swimming now and knew how fast that was.
Then came the next question: "What is Ryan Lochte's split?"
As an encore to his eight-gold-medal tour de force in Beijing, Phelps, 27, will swim seven events in London and likely win medals in all of them. He will surpass Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina as the Games' alltime medalist. (She won 18; he already has 16.) He has set 29 individual world records (itself a record) and won 61 world and Olympic titles, and he's universally recognized as the greatest swimmer in history. Yet a nagging question will follow Phelps to his fourth and final Games: Is he the greatest swimmer right now?
Along with raising the profile of his sport—sellouts in a basketball arena for the trials, prime-time TV coverage for non-Olympic meets, mainstream endorsements for the top aquatic performers—Phelps has helped create a true peer, a swimmer who has the versatility, strength, mental toughness and pain tolerance to swim a similar range of events and even beat him in some.
What is now the best rivalry swimming has ever seen was, for a long time, no rivalry at all. Starting in 2002, Lochte, who turns 28 on Aug. 3, lost to Phelps 17 straight times in the 200 individual medley before finally beating him at the 2010 U.S. nationals. He again outdid Phelps at last summer's worlds in Shanghai, defeating him in both the 200 freestyle and the 200 IM. In the latter race Lochte became the first swimmer to break a long-course world record since high-tech buoyancy suits were banned in 2010.
When accepting the trophy for that performance at USA Swimming's Golden Goggles Awards last November, Lochte made a point of thanking Phelps. "I wouldn't get this if it wasn't for Michael," Lochte said. "He pushes me every day. And I push him. We have a great rivalry."
At major events over the last two years, Phelps and Lochte have rarely been separated by more than a few 10ths of a second in any race. At the U.S. trials in Omaha, Phelps outtouched Lochte in the 200 free and 200 IM by a total of .14 of a second. (Even in the 100 butterfly, which Lochte swam "for fun," finishing third, Phelps beat him by just .51.) However, Lochte defeated Phelps by almost a second in the 400 IM. All four races brought crowds that ranged from 11,000 to 14,000 people at the CenturyLink Center to their feet.
Phelps has since dropped the 200 free to focus on the 4 × 100 relay. That leaves two head-to-head races in London, the 200 and 400 IMs. Both could be, in effect, match races. No one else in the world is within 1½ seconds in the 200 or 2½ seconds in the 400. "That rivalry is something you'll never see again in the Olympics, probably," says U.S. freestyler Ricky Berens, who'll be a relay teammate of the two stars in London. "It's so huge in every single race."
THE CLOCK may not separate Phelps and Lochte, but style and personality do. Lochte is as colorful and out there as Phelps is neutral and veiled. An adventurous dresser who might pair plaid shorts with Argyle (he calls them gargoyle) socks, the chiseled Lochte—who was on the covers of Vogue, Men's Health and Men's Journal this summer—has been known to mount the awards platform with diamond grillz on his teeth and something equally striking on his feet. (In Omaha he sported winged, flag-themed hightops.) When Phelps is in the ready room before a race, his gaze is impenetrable; his headphones are on and his focus is inward. In the same room an unplugged Lochte might try to chat up a competitor about how the Orlando Magic, his favorite NBA team, is faring. "Their body language and attitude 20 minutes before a race couldn't be more different," says three-time Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin. "Michael is very intense. Ryan is a fierce competitor, but he's always so chill."