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Column by John Lohn
IRVINE, California, August 21. WHETHER sporting a set of grillz or flashing those shiny green shoes that are difficult to miss, Ryan Lochte is a man of style. And stylish is the only way to describe how Lochte capped the finest competition of his career at the Pan Pacific Championships at the William Woollett Aquatic Center.
Over the course of the four-day meet, Lochte repeatedly dazzled the crowd and punctuated his performance by pushing his world record in the 200 individual medley. Clocking in at 1:54.43, Lochte was just off his global standard of 1:54.10, set in a tech-suit at last year's World Championships in Rome. Not only did Lochte post the fastest time in history in a textile suit, he captured his sixth gold medal of the meet – four individual and two in relay action.
Two years ago, for obvious reasons, we were talking about Michael Phelps as the most dominant swimmer in the world and the best the sport has seen. Phelps' overall legacy has not been touched. He remains the greatest swimmer of all-time. At least for now, however, Lochte is the top dog, his versatility and dominance inarguable.
With Pan Pacs crammed into four days, Lochte was exhausted for his final race and still managed to scare the world record. That near miss is a testament to his ability to bounce back and handle a heavy workload, just as Phelps has been able to do during his career. More, it demonstrated that Lochte is capable of embracing a schedule with eight events.
"I am done," Lochte said after his last event. "I had the world record in my sight and I know I'm capable of it, but all the swims earlier in the week took a (toll). But I'm happy with it. I wasn't thinking I had to go out and break the world record. I took a shot and tried, but it gives me something to work on for the next two years."
As talented as Lochte is in the water, the way he carries himself outside of the pool is what has the fans in a frenzy each time his name is announced. He has the ability to connect with the crowd, is charismatic and is anything but arrogant. He also boasts a good sense of humor and his favorite activities, such as skateboarding, only add to his likability factor.
Throughout the Pan Pacific Championships, Lochte talked about the meet serving as a stepping stone for the future. That future includes next year's World Championships in Shanghai and the 2012 Olympics in London. Which events Lochte contests at the next Games remains to be seen, but the options are aplenty – 200 freestyle, both backstrokes, both individual medleys and the relays.
Lochte is quickly climbing the ladder of greatest swimmers in history and the events of Shanghai and London will go a long way in determining how high he can move up the list and whether he can make further progress against Phelps. Regardless, the United States must feel fortunate to have the two best swimmers on the planet.
"How good is life for the United States when you have both Phelps and Lochte," said Mark Schubert, the National Team Head Coach and General Manager, earlier this week. "What Ryan and (coach) Gregg Troy have established has been tremendous and they'll keep working toward London.""
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Phelps undoubtedly has taken mental notes this week on Lochte's performances. Putting in less training time than coach Bob Bowman would have liked, Phelps will almost certainly be pushed to get his training back to normal levels, in time to set a foundation at the World Championships and then to excel again on the Olympic stage.
Phelps' week had its ups and downs, the positives being his performances in the 100 butterfly and as the leadoff leg on the 400 free relay. The negative was his struggle in the 400 individual medley, although given Phelps' conditioning level, that was a test that was going to be hard to pass. By the next international meet, expect Phelps – buoyed by the presence of Lochte – to have many more positive moments.
For now, though, Ryan Lochte sits atop the swimming world, the target of the rest of the world. His ascension to that place has been well-earned, and a rise that has been made with panache. He couldn't do it any other way.
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