Ryan Lochte could never escape Michael Phelps’ shadow. As Phelps took home the golds and the fame, Lochte settled for silvers and an afterthought. For years, he chased after the world’s greatest swimmer, not to catch him, but to eclipse him.
On Saturday night, Lochte finally stepped out of Phelps’ shadow and left the 14-time-gold-medalist in his. Lochte became a household name as he took gold in the 400 IM, blowing away the field, including Phelps.
It was stunning race to America and the world. But why is this such a surprise?
When Lochte beat Phelps last night it was nothing new. He has been doing it for years. From the 2010 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships to the 2011 World Championships to the 2012 US Olympic Trials, Lochte has more head-to-head victories over Phelps, and if you’re keeping score, it’s not that close.
Phelps, who had been working tirelessly up until Beijing in 2008, stepped away from swimming to enjoy his success, and deservedly so. He appeared on countless daytime shows, partied hard, and did just about everything you would expect accompanied worldwide fame.
Lochte though dove right back into the pool following the 2008 Olympics. Day in and day out, he did whatever it took to become better. He flipped 650-pound tires for a warm up, gave up fast food entirely, and amped up his weight training. Lochte honed in on the same maniac-like work ethic that once drove Phelps to unprecedented heights.
After Beijing, Phelps lost that drive, through no fault of his own. He had reached the pinnacle of the sport and become one of the greatest swimmers of all time. Even Phelps admitted that he had reached all his goals and wanted to approach London with a more carefree mindset.
Still it was odd to see Phelps look so human last night. For years, no matter the challenge or the deficit, he never came up short.
In the 200m Butterfly in Beijing, his googles flooded with water and he was forced to swim half the race blind. No matter, he still won gold. In the 100m Butterfly in Beijing, Phelps trailed the entire race and had virtually no chance with 10m left. But Phelps, in typical fashion, somehow touched ahead of Serbia’s Milorad Cavic by the slimmest of margins, one one-hundredth of a second.
That immortality Phelps took so long to build was shed away by Lochte in just over four minutes yesterday. It was even a surreal moment for Phelps. When NBC asked him what happened after the race, he continually stared off to the side, lost for words and lost all together.
For Phelps’, his 2012 Olympics performance will always fall short in our eyes because he can’t deliver the same magic he did in 2004 and 2008. How could he? He pulled off seemingly impossible feats and made it look routine, almost machine-like.
He’ll still win races and take a handful of gold medals home from London, but it won’t be the same. Phelps’ moment, and time, have passed.
As Lochte said, “It’s (my) time.”