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Phelps, Lochte set for historic Olympic swimming showdown

American swimmers Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte expect to take their fierce rivalry to a climactic ending at the London Olympics.

Americans to stage ultimate battle for supremacy in the pool

Americans Michael Phelps, left, and Ryan Lochte will stage the ultimate test of will at the London Olympics. (Getty Images)

When the London Olympics conclude and the last medal is awarded, one lasting memory may stand above the rest: Michael Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte.

Byron's Picks

Men

50 Freestyle

  • Gold: James Magnussenn (AUS)
  • Silver: Cesar Cielo (BRA)
  • Bronze: Anthony Ervin (USA)
  • Wild card: Cullen Jones (USA)

100 Freestyle

  • Gold: James Magnussenn (AUS)
  • Silver: Yannick Agnel (FRA)
  • Bronze: Brent Hayden (CAN)
  • Wild card: Nathan Adrian (USA)

200 Freestyle

  • Gold: Yannick Agnel (FRA)
  • Silver: Ryan Lochte (USA)
  • Bronze: Park Tae Hwan (KOR)
  • Wild card: Sun Yan (CHN)

400 Freestyle

  • Gold: Sun Yang (CHN)
  • Silver: Park Tae Hwan (KOR)
  • Bronze: Ryan Cochrane (CAN)
  • Wild card: Paul Bierdeman (GER)

1,500 Freestyle

  • Gold: Sun Yang (CHN)
  • Silver: Oussama Mellouli (TUN)
  • Bronze: Ryan Cochrane (CAN)
  • Wild card: Pal Joensen (FRO)

100 Backstroke

  • Gold: Matt Grevers (USA)
  • Silver: Camille Lacourt (FRA)
  • Bronze: Nick Thoman (USA)
  • Wild card: Ryosuke Irie (JPN)

200 Backstroke

  • Gold: Ryan Lochte (USA)
  • Silver: Tyler Clary (USA)
  • Bronze: Ryosuke Irie (JPN)
  • Wild card: Radoslaw Kawecki (POL)

100 Breaststroke

  • Gold: Kosuke Kitajima (JPN)
  • Silver: Fabio Scozzoli (ITA)
  • Bronze: Cameron van der Burgh (RSA)
  • Wild card: Ryo Tateishi (JPN)

200 breaststroke

  • Gold: Kosuke Kitajima (JPN)
  • Silver: Ryo Tateishi (JPN)
  • Bronze: Daniel Gyurta (HUN)
  • Wild card: Scott Weltz (USA)

100 Butterfly

  • Gold: Michael Phelps (USA)
  • Silver: Milorad Clavic (SRB)
  • Bronze: Tyler McGill (USA)
  • Wild card: Christopher Wright (AUS)

200 Butterfly

  • Gold: Michael Phelps (USA)
  • Silver: Takeski Matsuda (JPN)
  • Bronze: Laszlo Cseh (HUN)
  • Wild card: Chad le Clos (RSA)

200 Individual Medley

  • Gold: Michael Phelps (USA)
  • Silver: Ryan Lochte (USA)
  • Bronze: Laszlo Cseh (HUN)
  • Wild card: Thiago Pereira (BRA)

400 Individual Medley

  • Gold: Ryan Lochte (USA)
  • Silver: Michael Phelps  (USA)
  • Bronze: Laszlo Cseh (HUN)
  • Wild card: Yuya Horihata (JPN)

4x100 Freestyle

  • Gold: Australia
  • Silver: United States
  • Bronze: France
  • Wild card: Russia

4x200 Freestyle

  • Gold: United States
  • Silver: France
  • Bronze: Russia
  • Wild card: China

4x100 Medley

  • Gold: United States
  • Silver: Australila
  • Bronze: France
  • Wild card: Japan

No other rivalry will feature a more fierce competition as the two greatest swimmers in the world battle for supremacy after the Games begin July 27.

The competition magnified at the 2011 world championships in Shanghai with Lochte coming out on top by winning five gold medals, including victories over Phelps in the 200-metre freestyle and the 200 individual medley race.

Angered and motivated from the sight of his counterpart’s conquest, a better-conditioned Phelps responded at the recently completed U.S. trials in Omaha, besting Lochte in the same two events.

Some suggest that a changing of the guard took place in China, while others — CBC Sports swimming analyst Byron MacDonald among them — simply believe it was the wakeup call Phelps needed to prepare for his swan song in London.

"The classic line is, ‘Don’t poke the bear,’ and I think that’s exactly what happened," explains MacDonald, a former Canadian Olympic swimmer. "[Lochte] beat him and it pissed him off. He hates to lose, probably more than any swimmer certainly than I’ve ever seen. It motivates the hell out of him. Even when he’s lost to one or two swimmers in the past, it’s really motivated him."

This battle is more about who wins the most gold medals than any actual head-to-head matchups. The two Americans will only be competing against one another in the 200 and 400 individual medley events.

Phelps, the sport’s most iconic figure, will have an abundance of opportunities to add to an already gaudy medal haul. The 27-year-old is coming off a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Overall, he sits at 16 medals — including a mind-boggling 14 gold — and requires only three more medals of any colour to surpass Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina’s total of 18 and set the all-time mark.

Despite stunning the swimming world by announcing at the U.S. trials that he wouldn’t be defending his Olympic crown in the 200 freestyle, Phelps is entered in seven events in London: the 100 and 200 butterfly, 200 IM and 400 IM, plus all three relays. That still gives Phelps plenty of events to beat Lochte and overtake Latynina.

MacDonald sees Phelps topping Lochte in overall golds with five, in addition to the silver medals he’s predicting the Baltimore Bullet will earn in the 400 IM and the 4x100 freestyle. That would place Phelps at 23 career medals, a mark that may well stand the test of time.

"The guy works harder than anybody else on the planet and he is more gifted than most," said MacDonald. "He’s got renewed focus. This [London Olympics] is it. He knows the end of the line is coming."

Lochte, whose repeated claim that "this is my time" has caught the eye of the intense Phelps, is far from intimidated. The 27-year-old Upstate New York native will take part in at least five events — the 200 freestyle, 200 backstroke, 200 and 400 IM, and 4x200 freestyle relay, and could also be added to the 4x100 freestyle squad. He has the ability to sweep all of his individual events, but will be pushed hard in the 200 freestyle by Frenchman Yannick Agnel and, of course, Phelps in the medley races.

"Lochte is a phenomenal talent," MacDonald said of the four-time Olympic medallist. "The problem is he happens to be swimming in the same generation that Michael Phelps is in."

Phelps vs. Lochte: Head-to-head breakdown

200 IM

Here’s the problem Lochte faces in this event: On Aug. 2, he will compete in the final of the 200 backstroke 30 minutes before the 200 IM.

This is the scenario that played out at the U.S. trials as Phelps edged out Lochte in the latter event.

Granted, the loss was narrow — just 0.09 of a second — and Lochte is the world-record holder, but it’s asking a lot of any swimmer to beat a two-time defending Olympic champion a half-hour after going full out in another race.

"I think Michael can beat him even if Lochte didn’t have an event before the 200 IM," said MacDonald. "But the fact that Lochte has an event 30 minutes before…I don’t think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell he can win.

"Phelps will have rested all morning for the 200 IM and Lochte will have had to swim the 200 backstroke in the morning preliminaries, even though it’s easy for him to do it, it’s another race, it’s not a sleep-in, it’s not saving energy. It’s still in the back of your mind that you can’t screw up. That to me is just the small little extra that takes away from his ability to possibly be able to win this thing."

400 IM

The biggest bombshell of the U.S. trials was Phelps taking part in the 400 IM. After winning gold in Beijing, Phelps said he would never compete in the gruelling race again. But there he was making a shocking return. Even with his appearance, however, Lochte easily outdistanced Phelps by 0.83 of a second. In fact, of all the events the 2011 world champion is entered in, this competition should be the one he feels most confident of victory.

"Lochte’s going to win it because I don’t think Michael’s done the long-term training you need in the 400 IM. That’s a tough event," said MacDonald. 

"You can’t get away with not training hard for a four-minute race if you’ve just been training for a year. Michael really didn’t train hard in 2010 and 2011, and he’s only swam this race like twice in the last four years. I think that Lochte just has a little more in the tank for that race. And he has a little more on the line, too. He knows that’s his baby.

Race-by-race schedule

Michael PhelpsEvent DateRyan LochteEvent Date
400 Individual MedleyJuly 28, 2:30PM ET400 Individual MedleyJuly 28, 2:30PM ET
4x100 FreestyleJuly 29, 3:54PM ET*4x100 FreestyleJuly 29, 3:54PM ET
200 ButterflyJuly 31, 2:47PM ET200 FreestyleJuly 30, 2:41PM ET
4x200 FreestyleJuly 31, 3:47PM ET4x200 FreestyleJuly 31, 3:47PM ET
200 Individual MedleyAug. 2, 3:16PM ET200 BackstrokeAug. 2, 2:46PM ET
100 ButterflyAug. 3, 2:38PM ET200 Individual MedleyAug. 2, 3:16PM ET
4x100 MedleyAug. 4, 3:27PM ET*Could be added to relay team

Japan’s Kitajima looks for breaststroke sweep

Records Galore

No individual male swimmer has ever won the same event in three consecutive Olympics.

In London, that drought will most likely come to an end.

In fact, two swimmers — American Michael Phelps and Japan great Kosuke Kitajima — have an excellent chance to reach the mark in multiple events:

Phelps

  • 100 butterfly
  • 200 butterfly
  • 200 IM
  • 400 IM

Kitajima

  • 100 breaststroke
  • 200 breaststroke

Kosuke Kitajima is living proof that if you’re going to leave a lasting impact, make sure you do it on the grandest stage of all. To say the Japanese star has been inconsistent throughout his career is putting it mildly.

Kitajima has only won three world titles — a modest amount with regards to the length of his career — but few swimmers seem to gear up for the Olympics quite like this 29-year-old.

Kitajima has swept the 100 and 200 breaststroke Olympic titles at both the Athens and Beijing Games, and is a favourite to do the same in London. Like most of his career, Kitajima enters the London fray as somewhat of a wild card. He managed only a silver medal at the 2011 world championship, looking nothing like the dominant Olympic swimmer.

Still, an unprecedented third Olympic sweep in both events remains a good possibility.

"This is a classic guy that doesn’t gear up for the world championships or other events, but when the Olympics come, he has the ability to thrive and excel," said MacDonald. "He’s extremely talented and has a beautiful technique. He kind of cruises through better part of the quadrennial, but nails it at the Olympics."

Chinese swimmer Sun's star rising

Plagued by a number of positive drug tests in recent years, China finally has a swimmer who has made a consistent and steady climb to elite status. Sun Yang began making noise at the 2006 Asian Games before placing in the top 8 of the 1,500-metre final two years later in Beijing.

Chinese swimmer Sun Yang has a chance to leave an indelible mark on the London Games. (Mark Ralston/Getty Images)
By the time the 2011 world championships rolled around, the hometown kid was ready for prime time. Sun dominated the competition, breaking the world record en route to a gold medal.

He added a silver medal in the 400 freestyle, losing to Korea’s Park Tae Hwan. Sun also won gold in the 800, but unfortunately for him, that event won’t be available at the Olympics.

Now 20, the Chinese star has a chance to leave an indelible mark on the Games by winning two gold medals. What makes Sun so strong and difficult to beat is his rare ability to sit on top of the water, allowing him to move significantly quicker than the rest of his competitors.

"He obviously has a phenomenal cardiovascular system," said MacDonald. "He can just go and go and go. He just doesn’t get tired. He does something that’s extremely abnormal: off every turn he takes two breathes. In other words, most swimmers take a breath and turn to the left, but he immediately turns to the right and takes another breath. He somehow doesn’t slow down when he does it, where as everybody else does."

Cochrane Canada’s best hope

The feeling after Cochrane’s inspired bronze medal in the 1,500 four years ago was that the Victoria native would make the progression to gold-medal contender in London.

A silver medal for Canada’s Ryan Cochrane in the 1,500-metre freestyle is within reach. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press )
While it’s theoretically possible for Ryan Cochrane to achieve the top of the podium, the expectation is unrealistic.

When you consider the 23-year-old’s world silver-medal performance last year, where he finished more than 10 seconds behind Sun, the prevailing thought is the gap is too great to overcome. Yet silver in London is within reach. Cochrane has also beaten the other top contenders several times, including the defending Olympic champion Oussama Mellouli of Tunisia.

And don’t underestimate Cochrane in the 400 freestyle. It’s not his strongest event, and a podium finish is not likely, but there is a big dropoff after Sun and Park, so the Canadian could contend for that final medal.

"The only thing that can screw Ryan up now [in the 1,500] is that if he tries to push the envelope so hard and go with this guy [Sun] that he collapses at the end when [Sun] takes off and the two other guys [Mellouli and Gergo Kis of Hungary] pass him," said MacDonald. "I just have to hope that they’ve [Canadian coaches] kind of figured out that there’s no way to win gold, and let the guy go and race everybody else for the silver medal."

Other Canadians with medal aspirations

Brent Hayden — 100-metre freestyle

Hayden has been a mainstay in this event, winning the 2007 world title and a sliver last year. However, the disappointment in Beijing still resonates with the 28-year-old Mission, B.C., swimmer as a tactical mistake cost Hayden a place in the final.

Had he swam the Canadian record of 47.56 seconds — a time he nailed in the opening leg of the 4x100 freestyle relay — Hayden would’ve secured a bronze medal. Back and shoulder issues continue to limit Hayden, who has also been a bit off form lately, although MacDonald isn’t ruling out a podium finish.

He has posted the third fastest time in the world (47.95) in the past 12 months, and there is always a chance Hayden can come through in London."It’s going to be very close and Brent has historically been pretty hot over the last three or four years when it’s come down to 100ths of a second. He’s always been in the hunt — whether he’s got to the podium or not, at least he’s been in the there. I would hope that the same thing would happen in London."

Richard Weinberger — 10-kilometre open water

After making its debut in Beijing, the open-water competition has a legitimate Canadian medal threat. The confidence of the 22-year-old from Victoria must be soaring following his first international gold in the Olympic test event last summer. He then qualified for London when he finished second at a race in Setubal, Portugal in June.

"Weinberger beat both [2008 bronze medallist Thomas] Lurz [from Germany], who is by far the favourite, and [2011 world champion Spyros] Gianniotis [of Greece] in the test event at the same venue as Games. That is good sign. [Lurz and Gianiotis] rarely get beaten."

Scott Dickens — 100-metre breaststroke

"1:00.23 is my Canadian record which I want to break," Dickens tweeted when CBCSports.ca inquired about his best time in this event.

He’ll need to eclipse it by a significant margin if he hopes to sneak into the final. Dickens did post an impressive victory at a Grand Prix event in Santa Clara, Calif., where he beat Kitajima in June.

"He went through all that kind of self-doubt, worked himself back into contention, and he really did a great job at the [Canadian] trials," MacDonald said.

In the relays, the Canadian men will also make a strong push to make all three finals, but medal hopes appear out of reach.