We’ve heard the saying, “To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.”
But rarely is an athlete forced to unseat the greatest ever when the greatest ever is still cementing his status as such. That’s the daunting, yet special opportunity that swimmer Ryan Lochte has in front of him starting Monday at the U.S. Swimming Trials.
Fellow Gator Emmitt Smith battled the ghost of Walter Payton on his way to arguably becoming the greatest running back in NFL history. Smith breaking pro football’s all-time rushing record was part of a journey that conjured up more highlights of “Sweetness” leaping over piles and running over defenders.
Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are just the first of many to face the legend of Michael Jordan in their pursuit of becoming the greatest players in NBA history. All their milestones have been met with more clips of “His Airness” posterizing shot-blockers and hitting game-winners.
No matter how successful any player is in ascending to their respective sport’s mountaintop, they all at some point in time have to make us forget about those who stand there.
But Michael Phelps isn’t a memory yet.
He’s a winner of an unprecented 14 gold medals, a record eight of them in a single Olympics. The most accomplished swimmer and Olympian in history — who admitted this would be his last showing at the Games — certainly wants to leave behind a few more mental snapshots the same way any sports great wants to, and just like any true competitor wants to.
On Saturday, Phelps tried to disguise that desire.
“We’ve done everything. We done a lot of amazing things, a lot of cool, exciting things,” Phelps told The Associated Press. “Now, it’s just time to have fun. I’m a lot more relaxed than I’ve ever been. We’ll see after this week what size cherry I want to put on my sundae.”
Some fans don’t buy that Phelps actually carries that attitude heading into London. Phelps said he wouldn’t enter in eight events ever again, and he’s signed up for seven with a possibility of adding more. He also vowed to never compete again in the grueling 400-yard individual medley after the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but he re-incorporated it this year. That event just so happens to be one of his friend and rival Lochte’s two favorite events, alongside the backstroke.
In Monday morning’s preliminaries, Lochte and Phelps advanced to the final in the 400 IM. Only the top two finishers will get a spot on the U.S. team for London. Lochte, the defending world champ, was the top qualifier with a time of 4 minutes, 10.66 seconds. Phelps was second, seemingly relaxed as he registered a 4:14.72 in the preliminary heat.
“That was the easiest 4:14 he’s ever done, that I’ve seen in the whole entire world,” Lochte said. “It looked really, really smooth for him. Tonight’s definitely going to be a dogfight.”
The 400 IM means a lot to Lochte and Phelps, who’s won it the last two Olympics. Four years ago during trials in Beijing, Phelps broke his own world-record time on the way to winning gold in the event, while Lochte settled for the bronze with a twisted ankle. Lochte never did get his revenge in the race, coming down with a stomach bug before the finals and handing Phelps the first of those record eight golds.
So opening day of the eight-day Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., is sure to bring some drama. Even those that aren’t into swimming will watch Phelps as he defines his legacy, and Lochte is just as big a reason why. It’s not often that we get to watch a worthy athlete challenge the best ever in a particular sport while they’re still around. Tennis fans were treated to that in a similar way when Rafael Nadal emerged to end Roger Federer’s dominance in the sport.
“I love a challenge,” Lochte said. “For me to be in the same era as him, in the same events as him, to be able to race him to the finish, it’s awesome. I love it. I get soooo excited when I’m stepping on the blocks and trying to race him.”
The same swimmer who hasn’t been shy to say “this is my time” more than once leading into London definitely has a chance to prove that it is.
And it’ll be special if Lochte does. That’s because while Phelps may personify why the only thing better than being at the top is going out on top, Lochte epitomizes why the only thing better than making it to the top is taking down the guy who is at the top.
Another UF alum will be closely watched at this year’s Olympics. Dara Torres, now 45 and coming off two reconstructed knees, is also back in the 50-meter freestyle. She’s going after her sixth Olympic berth 28 years after making her first, an amazing feat of longevity.