Seven of the last nine times that Michael Phelps has won an Olympic, world or Pan Pacific gold medal in the 200- or 400-meter individual medley, Ryan Lochte has been on the podium with him, getting the silver or bronze, a superb medleyist with the bad luck to share the era with the greatest of all time. When Phelps took a break from the IMs after the Beijing Olympics, Lochte finally broke from his shadow, winning both events at the worlds in Rome last summer.
Now, two years out from the 2012 London Games, Lochte's hold on those events is being tested by a raft of challenges. The U.S. nationals, which start on Aug. 3 in Irvine, Calif., will be a critical measure of his ability to fend them off.
One challenge comes from Phelps, the world-record holder in both IMs, who is back in the medley mix. While the 400 IM remains "off the table right now," according to his coach, Bob Bowman, the 200 IM is again on his program. (At a meet in Charlotte in May, Phelps swam 1:58.35, the second-fastest time in the world this year. Lochte's best so far is 1:59.35.) Even without Phelps in the 400 IM, Lochte will have to hold off Michigan's Tyler Clary, the silver medalist at worlds last year and the American short-course record holder.
But Lochte's most immediate concern is his health. In October he underwent surgery to repair the meniscus he tore in his left knee while break dancing in his Gainesville, Fla., apartment, the latest in a string of freak accidents that have plagued him over the last few years. (Five weeks before the 2007 worlds he fell off his scooter and fractured his right foot; a month before the '08 Olympic trials he severely twisted his left ankle while chasing his Doberman puppy.) The meniscus injury kept Lochte out of the pool for a month and away from a full breaststroke kick for four more. "I don't want to take the chance of blowing my knee again," he says.
When Lochte started swimming a full breaststroke again in early May, he looked so strong that his coach, Gregg Troy, put the medleys back on his agenda for nationals—until mid-July, when Lochte re-tweaked a groin muscle, again hindering his breaststroke kick. "It makes [the IMs] a little iffy," says Troy of Lochte's program for the Irvine meet. "We're taking it day by day."
Bowman says the absence of Phelps or Lochte or both from medley races would be "a great opportunity for other people to step up." For Lochte, who turns 26 on Aug. 3 and has never beaten Phelps in a long-course medley, it would be a missed opportunity to prove that he deserves to remain on top.
Now on SI.com
More notes on Olympic sports from Brian Cazeneuve at SI.com/more
Nationals will be a crucial test for three women attempting comebacks, each of whom turned in impressive performances at July's L.A. Grand Prix.
After failing to qualify for worlds last summer, the three-time Olympic medalist (below) moved from Baltimore to Fullerton, Calif. In L.A. she swam 1:57.58 in the 200 free and 4:06.21 in the 400 free; both swims rank seventh in the world this year.
She made her first Olympic trials in 2000 at 12 and her first Olympics at 16, but didn't qualify in '08. Her 57.39 in the 100 fly in L.A. is the best time in the world this year.
The world-record holder in the 1,500 free, she missed the finals of the 400 and 800 frees in Beijing. After taking a year off from competition, she swam the 800 in L.A. in 8:25.89, the sixth-fastest time of the year.
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (LOCHTE)
STROKE MASTER With Phelps (inset, right) sitting the races out, Lochte won both the 200 and 400 IM at 2009 worlds.
KERIM OKTEN/EPA (LOCHTE AND PHELPS)
[See caption above]
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (HOFF)