Great Races: The End of the Michael Phelps-Ryan Lochte Rivalry; When Phelps Managed the Quad


Great Races: The End of the Michael Phelps-Ryan Lochte Rivalry; When Phelps Managed the Quad

As part of Swimming World’s Great Races Series, we take a trip back to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and the night Michael Phelps won a fourth consecutive Olympic title in the 200-meter individual medley. The event also marked the last meeting between Phelps and longtime rival Ryan Lochte. Here is the article about that night.

One day, perhaps a production company will pay all the rights fees required for footage and mesh together a DVD. It can be titled, “The Greatest Rivalry.” Care to guess the subject matter? Hint: It has to do with what unfolded – for the last time – on Night Six of the Olympic Games at the Rio Aquatics Centre.

For more than a decade, we’ve sat back and watched them entertain, rarely – if ever – providing something less than award-caliber stuff. If Part One of their show was a one-sided affair, it set the scene for what was to come. Part Two certainly brought more drama, the action scenes hitting their peak.

Now, the curtain is closed.

The Michael Phelps–Ryan Lochte rivalry is no more, the last clash of the American superstars booked into history on Thursday night with Phelps capturing the 22nd gold medal of his career, and the 26th overall medal. Heading for a second retirement, Phelps left no doubt about the outcome, putting together another virtuoso performance that ended in a time of 1:54.66, the fourth-fastest of his career and No. 8 all-time for the 31-year-old. It was his 15th individual Olympic medal, breaking the Olympic record off 14, held by former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina.

The bummer to the narrative was Lochte’s fifth-place finish in 1:57.47, the 32-year-old unable to maintain his lead at the midway point and his third-place standing going into the final lap. Nonetheless, to discount Lochte’s significance in the event, and to the best rivalry the sport has seen, would be a narrow-view focus. A career is not made on one race, but in totality, and Lochte’s portfolio rates in the top 1%.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

With Phelps notching a 1.95-second margin of victory, not far off his record 2.29-second triumph from Beijing in 2008, the silver medal went to Japan’s Kosuke Hagino in 1:56.61, the bronze to China’s Wang Shun in 1:57.05.

“I kind of knew when I first started coming back that it wasn’t going to be an easy process and I was going to force myself to go through pain I didn’t really want to go through,” Phelps said. “But if I wanted the end result, I had to. I was at a point in my life that I was ready to do that. I came back the heaviest I had ever been. I’ve said it a bunch: I felt like a kid again. I felt like I did when I was 18.

“It was some of the best training of my life. That was the only reason I was able to get back to where I once was. To be able to race this level consistently. I can recall a grand prix in Charlotte, and I thought, ‘what the hell am I doing back swimming again? I’m terrible.’ I was frustrated. But I decided to trust (coach Bob Bowman). For some reason, I trusted him when I was 11 years old and he’s not let me down once since, and I knew he would not let me down this time.”

In the past, Phelps has restrained his emotions during the medals ceremony, a smile pretty much the extent of things. This week has been different. Tears appeared in his eyes during his first three ceremonies in Rio, but the medley elicited more, Phelps choking up at the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.

It may not have been the fairytale end to the rivalry, but it wasn’t without history. With his latest gold, Phelps became the first swimmer to win the same event at four consecutive Olympiads, acknowledging that achievement with a four-finger flash to the crowd of 14,000. Phelps joined fellow Americans Al Oerter (discus; 1956-68) and Carl Lewis (long jump; 1984-96) as the only Olympians to pull off The Quad.

“I say this a lot, but every single day, I’m living a dream come true,” Phelps said. “As a kid, I wanted to do something that no one had ever done before, and I’m enjoying it. Being able to finish how I want is just something very special to me, and this is why you are seeing more and more emotion on the medal podium.”

Even if the last faceoff wasn’t epic, Phelps and Lochte engaged in a spectacular two-man act for a 12-year period that began in 2004. The show came off Broadway for a brief while, when Phelps retired following the London Games in 2012, but it was rekindled in time for a final run.

The finale was watched by millions across the globe, and while there was the occasional guest appearance (Hagino of late and Hungarian Laszlo Cseh in earlier episodes), Phelps and Lochte did just fine manning the spotlight by themselves.


Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

In the Playbill for their last showdown, a special section could be found that detailed their extraordinary success. Updated after Phelps’ victory, it reads as such:

  • Between them, Phelps and Lochte boast the 16-fastest performances of all-time, and account for the only efforts under the 1:55 barrier. Expanding, they have 26 of the fastest 35 outings, 34 of the quickest 50 and more than half (not a typo) of the top 100.
  • While Phelps has four Olympic titles in the 200 medley, Lochte’s trophy case includes two silver medals and a bronze in the event. Together, they’ve accounted for 38 Olympic medals – 26 for Phelps and 12 for Lochte, the second-highest total for a swimmer.
  • They combined for every world title dating to the 2003 World Championships in Barcelona. While Phelps walked away with gold medals in 2003, 2005 and 2007, Lochte won every world championship from 2009 through 2015 – four in all.

At the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps engaged in their finest duel. While Lochte lowered the world record to 1:54.00, Phelps posted the fastest time of his career, a clocking of 1:54.16.

“It’s crazy to believe Ryan and I have been on the Olympic Team and National Team together since 2004,” Phelps said. “That’s the longest, I think, continuous competitor I’ve ever had. Definitely one of the toughest, too. It’s crazy to think about some of that stuff. But it’s also really cool because I’ve been able to do everything I wanted. It all started as a kid. I wasn’t afraid.”

Now that it’s over, it’s kind of sad for the sport, huh? Then again, that depends on the vantage point. Sure, it’s a loss knowing they’ll never go into the breaststroke leg of a medley in a dead heat, each man looking for that smallest crack of daylight. Sure, we’ll miss the banter between them, a little bit of joking and a lot of mutual respect. But all things end, and the impact they’ve had on the sport? That’s going nowhere.

When this rivalry was born on the road to the Athens Olympics in 2004, it was lopsided in nature. Lochte wasn’t at the level of Phelps. Work needed to be done to cut the deficit, and it would take time. So as Phelps rolled along, Lochte trained his way into someone capable of giving the G.O.A.T. a challenge. Eventually, the result was a global standard for Lochte and a defeat of the Big Man at the World Champs in Shanghai.


Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

The Phelps-Lochte tale, on the big stage, was an illustration of one of Phelps’ primary goals: Grow the sport. He made Lochte into a better athlete by raising the proverbial bar, and in itself, that made swimming better from an internal standpoint. Other swimmers understood that Phelps knew no boundaries on his ambitions, and recognized – through Lochte’s determination – that previously discounted aspirations were doable. Wait, someone can challenge Michael Phelps? Lochte basically said, and showed: “Hell, yes!”

“Going against him is a dream come true,” Lochte said of his compatriot.

“Especially what he has done in the sport. He has changed it. He’s one of the best, not swimmer ever, best athlete in the Olympics. For me, being able to push him for so many years, we bring the best out of each other.”

Outside of the world of international competition, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte have put kids in the pool. USA Swimming has experienced a spike in membership during their careers, enhanced boosts coming in Olympic years. It’s been as simple as that little kid sitting in front of the TV turning to mom and dad, and saying: “Sign me up. I want to win medals like those guys.”

Then there’s the coverage aspect. Before Phelps, and with the help of Lochte as his profile soared, finding swimming on television in the United States was…well, it wasn’t going to happen. These days, coverage can be found of USA Swimming Pro Series stops, U.S. Nationals, the World Championships and the Pan Pacific Champs. In Olympic years, swimming rates at the top of the list of most-watched sports. Heck, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the United States rights holder to the Games, convinced the International Olympic Committee to have finals start at 10 o’clock in Rio de Janeiro.


By getting that schedule arranged, it could show the swimming action in not only a live format, but in primetime. What does primetime mean? Bigger advertising dollars.

With Michael Phelps going the retirement route, Lochte is uncertain about his end date. He has not ruled out a run toward the 2020 Games in Tokyo, but he also recognizes the need to take a step back, recharge and reassess.

“I wish that end was a lot better,” Lochte said. “It is what it is. My swimming career has been good and I’m so thankful for the gifts and talent that I’ve been given. But I had to work at it. Day in and day out for so many years. I just wish I ended up better.

“I can’t say this is over. If anything, I think especially that race, it helped motivate me. There are a lot of things I need to change in the next four years if I want to come back into the sport. But for right now, I think I need a break mentally. Who knows. It could be for a day. It could be ten days, two years. I just know I need physical and mental tapering.”

Whatever happens, it’s a guarantee that Phelps and Lochte will be celebrated at future Olympic Trials, regaled through tales of their duels and given the chance to take a bow.

They’ve earned it.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    James Nickoloff

    Why no mention of Lochte’s victories over Phelps in big-stake events? For example, the 400 IM at 2012 London Olympics and the 200 IM and 200 free at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai.

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