Looking Towards The Future of Ryan Lochte

Column by John Lohn, Swimming World senior writer

BASKING RIDGE, New Jersey, December 20. THE wait for the next Mark Spitz was a 36-year process, not realized until Michael Phelps had eight gold medals draped around his neck two years ago in Beijing. So, it's hard to believe that at the next Olympics, set for London in 2012, we could very well be on a watch to see if Ryan Lochte can capture eight gold medals of his own.

Is it premature to talk about Lochte and the pursuit of another Olympic Octet? Maybe. But as the competitive international season came to a close over the weekend at the World Short Course Championships in Dubai, Lochte provided further evidence as to why he must be considered a threat to make the next Olympics as dramatic and watched as the Beijing Games.

Even before Lochte traveled to the United Arab Emirates for the World Champs, the 2010 season belonged to the Floridian. He put on a show at the Pan Pacific Championships in August, collecting six gold medals and earning the right to be named the finest in the sport for the year with Swimming World Magazine's World Swimmer of the Year award. What he did in the shorter pool only added to his jaw-dropping campaign.

During the course of five days, Lochte won five individual events, the 200 freestyle and 200 backstroke, along with a sweep of the three individual medley disciplines. The 200 IM and 400 IM were captured in world-record time, making Lochte the first individual to break a global standard since the techsuit era went by the wayside. He also added a gold medal in the 400 medley relay, handling the butterfly leg to further demonstrate his ridiculous range. When Lochte entered the water during the final race of the competition, the United States trailed Russia. By the time Lochte completed his split of 49.17, he had given Garrett Weber-Gale the lead, which Weber-Gale expanded during the final 100 meters.

Had Phelps never come along and been molded by Bob Bowman at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, there would likely be discussion about Lochte having a chance to peg himself as the greatest swimmer in history, provided he comes through in London. As it is, the chatter is about to heat up concerning Lochte pursuing what Phelps threw down in China.

Between now and London, Lochte will have the chance to make his case. Like Phelps did in Melbourne at the 2007 World Championships, Lochte can set the stage for London at next year's World Champs in Shanghai. If he has a superb meet, and there's no reason to think otherwise, the buzz will only grow and speculation will run rampant over what events he'll tackle at the United States Olympic Trials in Omaha. How many individual events will he contest? Will he race three relays in London? Where is he a lock? Where is he vulnerable? How will Phelps affect Lochte's pursuit? How will Lochte affect Phelps' follow-up to Beijing? Oh, how the sport will be in a terrific frenzy.

This column is not to say that Lochte will match or surpass what Phelps has done. What Phelps has done in this sport is downright amazing, and untouched. It would not be surprising, either, if Phelps returns to his past form and blazes to London, capping his career with yet another stellar show. Hey, he's Michael Phelps. It's what he does.

No, this column is to say that Ryan Lochte has brought his own special flavor to the sport – both athletically and through personality. It's a tremendous development for the sport that he has even raised the possibility that Phelps' exploits can be pushed. How will the next two years unfold? No one knows for sure. Following along, though, will be a blast.