Swimming Needs Another Phelps/Lochte Rivalry

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By Ashley Illenye, Swimming World College Intern.

Since its inception, the concept of the rivalry has been one of the most entertaining aspects of sports. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Cristiano and Lionel Messi, and Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are all examples of rivalries that have intensified the viewer’s love of boxing, basketball, soccer, and football, respectively. What, however, makes a great rivalry in swimming?

As of late, there may be more international rivalries than USA swimming rivalries to revel over. Michael Phelps and Chad le Clos created a great buzz over Twitter in 2015 which lead to their hot rivalry in Rio. Lilly King called out Russia’s Yulia Efimova over drug doping. Among the clashes of the last several years, one stands out as one of the greatest swimming rivalries of all time: the one between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.

The Lochte/Phelps rivalry fueled swimming entertainment for nearly 12 years, and the sport of swimming is in need of another rivalry- a rivalry that extends past one event and one meet, that challenges the norm and surprises us at every turn. Beyond that, the two weren’t just competitors, they were friends.

A Brief History of the Phelps/Lochte Rivalry


Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Magazine

Unofficially, this history-making rivalry began in Athens, Greece, in 2004 with the individual medley races at the Olympic Games. At the time, Phelps had just turned 19 and Lochte was on the brink of turning 20. This was Lochte’s first Olympics and Phelps’ second, after not medaling at his first. It was at this Olympics that Phelps beat Lochte head-to-head for the first time, winning the 200 individual medley by almost three seconds. At that Games the duo also raced on the winning 4×200 meter freestyle relay together.

On the off years between the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, Lochte and Phelps went head to head several times again. History repeated itself at the 2005 World Championships where Phelps won the 200 IM, leaving Lochte to get third while the two competed on the same relay 4×200 meter freestyle which they won.

At the National Championships in 2006, Lochte closed the gap between himself and Phelps to a narrow .28 difference in the 200 meter IM. At the Pan Pacific Championships that same year, the gap was tightened even further to a .27 difference, once again giving Phelps the edge and a world record. The two were then on the same winning 4×200 meter freestyle relay.

In 2007, Phelps bettered his world record and his record against Lochte, being the first man under 1:55 in the 200 IM. The famous 2008 Phelps performance clearly put Phelps in front in both the 200 and 400 IMs, their first time competing in the 400 IM at the Olympics against one another.

The 2009 World Championships was the first time that Phelps shortened his event list at a large-scale world competition. This allowed Lochte to have individual titles in both the 200 and 400 IM, his first time receiving gold medals on the world’s stage in these respective events. This gave Lochte momentum in the Phelps/Lochte rivalry, though they didn’t compete head to head in this event.

In the Pan Pacific Championships in 2010, Phelps began to lose steam. Though he beat Lochte in the 200 meter freestyle at the 2010 National Championships, he could not maintain this at Pan Pacs. Phelps did not qualify for the A final of the 400 meter IM, leaving Lochte to win the event.

At the 2011 World Championships, Lochte won five gold medals, besting Phelps in the 200-meter freestyle and the 200-meter IM. Lochte’s 1:54.00 was good for the World Record in the 200 IM. The meet saw the pair on a relay together in the 4×200 meter freestyle where they beat France.

The 2012 Olympics was a back-and-forth battle for dominance between Phelps and Lochte. While Lochte triumphed in the 400 meter individual medley, Phelps won the 200 individual medley. The two were on another victorious 4×200 meter freestyle relay together, giving Lochte two individual wins and Phelps four.

Phelps didn’t compete in 2013, claiming his first retirement. The duo didn’t meet again until 2016. Without Phelps, Lochte won the 200 Individual Medley at the 2015 World Championships. Phelps held the fort at the 2015 US National Championships, going the fastest time in the world for 2015 in the 200 meter individual medley.

At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Lochte and Phelps both swam the 200 IM. Phelps was able to capture the gold at this Games while Lochte fell to fifth. With just one of them medaling, this brought the Phelps/Lochte rivalry to a close with Phelps’ second retirement.

Why USA Swimming Needs Another Rivalry


Photo Courtesy: USA TODAY Sports-USA TODAY Sports

Rivalries are integral to sports for many reasons. A rivalry can make any sporting event more exciting. It can draw more attention to the sport and attract fans who are not otherwise interested in the sport.

They allow great topics for conversation and are fun entertainment that encourages the following of the sport. Giving people someone to root for can cause a lot of debate among people over which athlete is better (at the time or overall).

In off years, a rivalry like Phelps/Lochte can bring traffic to the sport that may not have been there otherwise. Typically the Olympics years are the ones where swimming gets its time to shine, but a rivalry like Phelps/Lochte gave extra attention to other meets as well.

Though Phelps is regarded as one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time, he was bested by Lochte several times. This has yet to happen with other powerhouses on a national level such as Katie LedeckyChase Kalisz or Simone Biles in their respective events and sports. A rivalry could further push these athletes and give fans greater entertainment.

Both Phelps and Lochte have commented on their friendship/rivalry, almost always in the highest of regard for each other.

According to Business Insider, Lochte said, “I love a challenge. That why I do the events that I do and going against [Phelps] is a challenge.”

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.


  1. Veyru

    bees knees :

    • Joe Stott

      One sided rivalry though

    • Shaheen Alghofari

      Yeah dw ill give u a chance we are all human you still have a shit at beating me

  2. avatar

    Lochte did swim the 200 IM at Rio. He finished 5th in the final.

  3. Don Mac

    Mallory comerford and katie ledecky

    • avatar

      Comerford has yet to win a single individual international race, while Ledecky has won more individual World Championship LC and individual Olympic races combined than any female swimmer in history. Any rivalry would more likely be between a Comerford-Ledecky pairing on a Team USA relay against rivals from anothet country.

  4. avatar

    world record clocking in a 1:40.00 in the 200 IM – 1:40.00?

  5. avatar

    Comerford and Manuel in 100 free

  6. avatar

    Katie Ledecky, Chase Kalisz or Simone Biles – LOL, what Biles has to do with Ledecky and Kalisz?

  7. It’s on the way….. Dressel vs. Proud, and Dressel vs. Kristof Milak (give it a few years, and everybody will know his name). Schooling’s never getting near Dressel again!

    • avatar
      Lane Four

      Agree. Completely.

  8. Paul Cate

    Dressel v Schooling will be a good place to start.

  9. Colin McMahon

    Phelps won, typically, however, the rivalry between the two made them both better swimmers.

  10. Elizabeth Hinely

    Lochte was the only one who thought there was a big Phelps/Lochte rivalry. ?

    • Elizabeth Hinely

      Idha Warfahly Ukkoh Bangahan , show me where Lochte beat Phelps in any race that mattered. NBC played up the “rivalry” to make things interesting for people that don’t understand swimming. But, swimmers know that races without a shave and taper shouldn’t really be compared. All it meant was that Phelps worked harder in the pool that week, not that Lochte was catching up.

  11. avatar
    Lane Four

    Actually, Ryan’s FIRST individual gold medal at Worlds was in 2007 when he defeated Aaron Piersol in the 200 backstroke. And really? 1:40.00 for the 200 I.M.???????? How did that get by the editor????

  12. Cakrawijaya

    Like in F1 you can name it many rivalries

  13. Joe Kase

    Well my son is still in High School. Need to see who will challenge him.

  14. Luis Ojeda

    Is already there Dressel vs Chad vs Lazlo Chesch vs Schooling vs Ben Proud vs others (it’s a huge field in the fly where the current kings are Chad , Dressel ,Lazlo and Schooling but the crown is the reach of a huge number of swimmers) plus in the 50 free its Dressel and Manaudou I think Manaudou will take him to school on his comeback

    • Luis Ojeda

      It’s sad Chad Le Clos cloud’ve gone below 50 secs in the 100 fly but he was facing a lot of family issues like both of his parents facing cancer and recovering from it