No one gets in the face of sports greatness anymore, pokes it in the chest and says "I am coming for you." It’s too hard. It’s too scary and it is so much easier to say appropriately deferential things before and lose graciously and hug afterward.
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Well almost no one, I should say. A few still dare to tug on Superman’s cape.
Which is why in December, in the meat of the NFL season, I am in Atlanta. I am here to watch the most interesting man in the swimming world. At least he is to me. This disclaimer is necessary because I am not talking about Michael Phelps, the most accomplished man in swimming, the biggest name and quite possibly still the greatest swimmer going at the moment.
But Phelps is not in Atlanta. There are theories as to why he has been a little reclusive on the pre-2012 London Olympic slate, but really, there’s just one reason. And his name is Ryan Lochte. And he is why I am in Atlanta in the middle of football season.
So most of you are having one of these three reactions:
1. Can you believe what Lochte did in Shanghai at the World Championships?
2. Lochte is a swimmer, right?
3. Who in the hell is Ryan Lochte? And why is this chick writing about him during football season?
For those in Groups 2 and 3, Lochte is kind of like Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He is in the midst of this amazing run. Nobody is playing any better, but all anybody can talk about is Tim Tebow. Just sub in swimming for playing and Phelps for Tebow and this is Lochte’s life. Nobody is performing any better and still his professional life is in marked by contrasts to his frenemisis.
What if Phelps were here?
Can you beat Phelps?
Phelps, Phelps, Phelps, Phelps, Phelps.
"All I can say is it’s my time," Lochte said to a small group of reporters at The Duel in the Pool late Friday.
This says a lot, actually. He is for sure tugging on Superman’s cape. Because one theory is Phelps was so annoyed and angry after Lochte kind of, sort of totally kicked his butt and rubbed his face in it in Shanghai that he has sequestered himself at Phelps HQ devising a plan on how to make Lochte pay. In fact, a BBC radio reporter in from London asked this very question. There is something about the British accent, especially on a male, that allows them to say almost anything and it not sound antagonistic. So when he proposed the angry Phelps revenge scenario it brought a smile to Lochte’s face.
"I hope so," Lochte said, a little devilishly.
"I know he wasn’t happy after Shanghai. So I know he’s in the pool training hard and that’s a little motivation for me," he continued. "I have to train even harder. I have to find different ways to get faster. I know he’s training his butt off and I got to do the same."
My first thought is hell yeah. My second? It’s about time.
Four years ago in Beijing, the whole USA Swimming contingent seemed to be a Phelps entourage. This wasn’t all their fault. They would get out of the pool, male or female, win or lose, world record or gold medal, it did not matter. We’d ask them about Phelps — his fatigue level, what he ate for breakfast, what being a part of his Olympics was like. I know. I was there. What he did four years ago in Beijing, winning a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, is the most amazing sporting achievement I have ever witnessed live. I can still see Jason Lezak coming back in that relay to preserve eight for him.
As good as Phelps is for swimming, the sport needs Lochte.
Beijing was spectacular for this very Hemmingway man-vs.-himself battle that Phelps had going on. The best of sport, though, is when the competition comes from another. And Phelps-Lochte is shaping up to be the best showdown in London. This time around there will be two people in the pool that good, two people with goals.
"There is no way around it. The big talk of 2012 is going to be me and Michael," Lochte said. "I put myself in that kind of position where I’ve gotten a lot faster since 2008 and I’m able to race the world’s greatest swimmer and it’s an honor to be racing against him and being on the same team and same pool as him. … Hands down, and I’ll say this over and over and over, Michael Phelps is the world’s greatest swimmer."
If you beat the best, you are the best right?
And while Lochte did not go there, saying instead he’d "leave that up to you guys," this adage is most definitely true. If Lochte somehow brings down Phelps in London, he will be the best. He was not ready in Beijing, not really ready. And he might not be this time either. He said he cleaned up stuff in his personal life, some issues that were stressing him. It sounded very much like girl trouble, but it is not really any of our business. What is our business is if he can do what nobody seems to do well in sports anymore — take on a phenomenon and win.
"A lot of people say that after the last two to three years what I have accomplished … people say I am the new Michael," Lochte said. "For me, it goes through one ear and out the other.
"For me, as far as I’m concerned, last year never happened. I mean, I’m over it. As far as I’m concerned, I’m at the bottom."
The truth is Lochte probably does not have a good chance now. Phelps is the greatest swimmer ever and now, after Shanghai, he is probably training like Rocky in Rocky 4, in some barn in Russia while running with rocks up a mountain. This is why this idea they are somehow BFFs is preposterous. There is some good sports animosity here. You get in a pool to race at this level without the desire to win crawling under your skin, the thought of finishing second even to a friend churning your insides around. I wouldn’t respect either if it was any other way.
There is a difference between being a good sport and a good loser.
And there is a difference between being part of the entourage and being the competition.
Because in a parallel universe, Lochte is the guy we are talking about Tebow-style. He is talented, good looking, laid back, a dream pitch man. But much like playing ball in the era of Jordan or excelling in the NFL right now during Tebowmania, it is easy to get lost battling a phenomenon.
And this is why I am in Atlanta, because the most interesting man in swimming is the guy who thinks he can take it on and win.