Michael Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte
Credit: Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

0.27 seconds. That's all that separates Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte in the 200 IM.

Despite their opposite personalities, the two fastest swimmers in American history have become close friends. But it's their intense rivalry that sets the stage for what promises to be the single greatest race at the Beijing games.

Michael Phelps is in a rut. It's April, the Beijing Olympics are just four months away, and the 23-year-old American swimming star hasn't had a quality race since last year's world championships. It's surprising for the man widely accepted as the most dominant swimmer to ever pull on a Speedo, but what's stranger is that Phelps, who has just arrived at Ohio State University for a grand prix meet, is offering unusually candid remarks about his struggles to a group of journalists. Normally he plays the self-assured athlete-businessman to perfection, choosing his words carefully while acting as the pitchman for a giant roster of high-paying sponsors that includes Visa, Omega, Speedo, and Hilton. His savvy business deals, including the launch of a new sports drink this past July, have helped him become the highest paid swimmer in U.S. history, earning some $5 million a year. But due to poor results recently and some personal struggles out of the water, Phelps is brooding, showing some cracks.

"I've never had a year like this," Phelps says. "It's weird. I have no idea what it is. But I'm going to get myself out of it. [Coach Bob Bowman] and I are working to get ourselves out of it." Phelps is fidgeting now, and turns his Detroit Tigers hat back and to the right. He tugs at his white long-sleeve shirt, which he wears with baggy jeans and sneakers. The clothes look comfortable, even if he no longer does.

It's hard to believe, but even more is expected of Phelps this August than four years ago. In Athens the question was whether he could equal swimming legend Mark Spitz's seven gold medals – the greatest haul from a single Olympics. Phelps fell short, winning six golds, and eight medals total. This time around people are asking whether Phelps can capture eight golds. (Speedo has $1 million that says he can take at least seven.) If he wins four, he will have more first-place finishes in his career than any Olympian ever.

Earlier in the day a reporter asked Bowman how many golds he expects his charge to win. Phelps's longtime coach knew it was coming and nodded quietly – like a man due for a prostate examination that he would prefer to postpone. Rather than answer, Bowman redirected the question to Phelps.

"Are you winning eight gold medals?" Bowman asked.

Phelps was fiddling with his BlackBerry, an extension of his hand when he's not in the water. He paused, looking up just long enough to respond with a dismissive "Huh?" Then he went back to texting.

Before I could press Phelps on the issue of his self-confessed slump and whether it presents an opportunity for his friend, teammate, and rival Ryan Lochte to beat him, a reporter asked about the time change in Beijing and having to swim so early in the morning. Phelps looked thrilled to be answering something routine and threw out a freeze-dried answer before walking off. "It's the Olympics," he said, snapping back into form. "If you can't get up, there's something wrong."

If there's a counterbalance to Michael Phelps's carefully crafted corporate persona, it's Ryan Lochte. The U.S. Olympic Swim Team member is a world-record holder in the 200-meter backstroke and, arguably, the principal threat to Phelps's Beijing medal count. But unlike Phelps, Lochte – who won two medals in Athens but is still largely unknown outside the swimming community – is all improv. Conversations with him are conducted in stream of consciousness, with "dude" and "like" frequently sprinkled between other words that come out sloooowwwly, as if he's just ripped a few bong hits.

Whereas Phelps boasts a professional, polished website that is published in both English and Chinese, Lochte's internet forays have been less…sophisticated. For a while he was writing a blog for Swimroom.com. The last entry from 2007 featured a headline that read "whats good!!" in which he informed readers he was "holding down the G-Spot" (Gainesville, Florida, his hometown). Then he explained how he'd just gotten back from L.A., where he shot a "Got Milk?" commercial: "you know that the milk mustache thing is not really milk. it is a quarter milk, a quarter ice cream, and a quarter of cottage cheese. ewwww!"

That's only three quarters, of course, but Lochte, also 23, doesn't let little things like math bother him. In fact, he doesn't let anything bother him.

About a year ago he enlisted some of his boys from the University of Florida swim team and off they went in search of mischief. The crew grabbed Lochte's high-powered slingshot and some water balloons and headed for the athlete dorms on campus. Across from them were some fraternity houses, which were hosting an outdoor concert. There were a lot of people in attendance – people standing still. The military calls that a target-rich environment.

Lochte and his pals hunkered down between some cars and began carpet bombing the concert: release, splash, repeat. Lochte found it hilarious – until four cops sprinted toward the merry pranksters.

"I was like, 'Oh shit,'" Lochte recalls. "'Run!'"

And they did, hauling ass around the corner before diving into a row of hedges, where they hid until the cops shot past. More recently Lochte pulled the flaming-bag-of-shit gag – on his girlfriend. For whatever reason, she's still with him.

"Lochte has that element of craziness about him," says U.S. Swim Team member Brendan Hansen, who holds the world record in the 100 and 200 breaststroke. "You're like, Wow, this kid is kind of…out there. He does whatever he wants. He just shows up, and if the water is wet, he gets in. That mentality – it doesn't matter what I do prior to the race, I'm going to swim fast – is definitely interesting."

Considering how different Phelps and Lochte are, it would be easy to imagine them as bitter rivals. After all, the 200 individual medley, an event in which Phelps was once unbeatable, is quickly becoming a heated competition between the two swimmers. Phelps – who is 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds of long, lean, stick-figure limbs – owns the world record in the event, but he barely held off Lochte for the gold in Athens. Then, this past November, Lochte defeated Phelps in the 200 IM short-course championships in Atlanta. And while Phelps was trying to work out of his rut as recently as April, Lochte swam extremely well at an Olympic warm-up in Manchester, England, winning the event over top international swimmers. Yet the competition hasn't created a rift between the two.

"I think it's good for the sport that we're pushing each other," says Lochte, who is two inches shorter and more compact and muscular than Phelps. "Most of the things you hear about rivalries, it's people who hate each other. But that's totally not us."

In fact, they've been close since they first met at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials. They even vacationed together for a week in Beijing after last year's world championships. Though Lochte trains in Gainesville and Phelps works out in Ann Arbor, Michigan, they're constantly in touch. Like teenage girls, they send daily text messages; they also gab on the phone a few times a week about mutual interests like hip-hop, video games, and expensive cars. Their conversations are rarely, if ever, about swimming.

"With us," Lochte says, "it's all shits and giggles."

"He's hysterical," Phelps says. They even have a running text message gag: "Young Jeezy says 'jeah.'" Sometimes, they'll just shorten the missive to "jeah." (Young Jeezy, for the unacquainted, is a rapper who does, in fact, say "jeah.") "That's just us acting stupid," Phelps says. "I think he brings that side out in me."

"They're always texting. They're always joking," says Peter Carlisle, an agent whom the two share. "They're totally comfortable around one another. For a couple of guys who have a lot of serious stuff to think about, you wouldn't know it when they're together."

"Ryan is the best thing to ever happen to Michael," says USA Swimming head coach Mark Schubert. "Because even though Michael isn't the type to rest on his laurels, he can't since Ryan is right there. Ryan is continuing to improve, and Ryan is so close to him in all the events they both swim."

Despite Phelps's recent poor showings, his natural abilities, coupled with Lochte's improving strokes, have Schubert predicting that the Olympic 200 IM will be a classic – the Ben Johnson vs. Carl Lewis contest of 2008. But hopefully without the steroids and international scandal.

On his left wrist Michael Phelps rocks an icy omega watch with an appropriately large, trendy face. On his right wrist he sports an eggplant-colored scar about two inches in length, the takeaway from a nasty spill he suffered in Ann Arbor around last Halloween as he was on his way to practice. He was getting into his car – a gray Range Rover with 22-inch rims and midnight-black tint on the windows – when he fell on a patch of ice.

Phelps eventually allows that injuring his wrist less than a year before the Olympics probably sunk him into his rut. Since then he's had some surprising second place finishes, including one at the Ohio State meet to American Peter Vanderkaay (a guy not in Phelps's league) in the 200-meter freestyle event. The broken wrist is the second mishap he's had since Athens; Phelps, who was born in Baltimore, was picked up on a DUI charge when he was home in Maryland in November 2004. He served 18 months probation, but the sentence hasn't hounded him as much as his fall has. He had to wear a cast for a while, then a splint, which kept him out of the water for two months.

While on the mend, Phelps's spirits dipped. Usually a ravenous eater, his appetite waned, and he was losing sleep. I point out that it sounds as if he may have been depressed, but Phelps waves it off.

"Everyone can be. I'm not saying I haven't been," he says. "My head wasn't in it. I wasn't mentally there." He runs his hand through his thick, chestnut-colored hair, which without the Tigers cap sticks straight up. "It just shows, in the blink of an eye, you can lose something."

Phelps has more to lose than most. He's been pushing toward his "something" since he was an adolescent. Back then, as a kid whose only job was to swim fast, his mother Debbie took care of everything at home, while Bowman handled matters at the pool. (His father Fred, a state trooper, abruptly left the family when he was nine; Phelps hasn't talked to him in three years, and says he doesn't plan to.) When he was about 13 or 14, when everyone was whispering that he could make the Sydney Olympics and pressure became his constant companion, Phelps thought about quitting swimming to try different sports, like all the other kids. He was attending a regular high school, but he felt removed from the teenage experience. "I would think about it and say, What the hell am I doing?" Phelps remembers. "I can't quit swimming and play high school sports. But there were times when I was just fed up, and I didn't want to do it anymore."

For most of his life Phelps has been a prisoner of expectations: Swim at trials. Make the Sydney Olympics. Win seven golds at Athens. Win eight at Beijing. Be great. Be bigger than swimming. He'll probably compete in London in 2012, but he isn't sure if he'll swim in as many events. Which is why he's looking forward to putting Beijing behind him: He wants to decompress.

At the Ohio State meet, he acted as if he could use a break. Between events on the second day – with a veritable carnival of swimmers milling about and music blaring over the sound system – Phelps sat down near the diving platforms and somehow fell asleep. Bowman, not wanting to push Phelps too hard, decided to pull him out of the 400 IM later that afternoon to let him rest.

"Growing up, never really having a break, never really taking time off – I want to get through [Beijing] and have time to relax," Phelps says, twisting on his chair. "I've always been on other people's schedules. I've been doing what they told me. I'm just looking forward to being able to do whatever I want and only listen to myself. Not have a workout schedule. Not have to be here for an interview or there for a shoot or do this or that. I'm going to do whatever I want to do, go wherever I want to go."

While Phelps has been waiting a long time for a break, Lochte has seemingly been on a lifelong vacation. He had a stable home environment growing up; his parents are still married, and as a child he was coached first by his mother, Ike, and then by his father Steve. Phelps, who turned professional at an early age and never swam in college, had the media hounding him before he could legally drive. Lochte, on the other hand, swam at the University of Florida and had gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream press until this year. Since no one was really watching or pressuring him, Lochte always felt free to do as he pleased. He still does.

Last spring Lochte hopped on his scooter and putted off to the pool. He was going about 35 or 40 mph on Northwest 22nd Street in the G-Spot, weaving in and out of his lane, when he lost control, flew off the scooter, and landed in some bushes. The spill resulted in a fractured ankle and a bruised shoulder. For most swimmers – certainly for Phelps, who rarely does anything more dangerous than sit on his couch and play video games – the incident would have served as an admonition to cool it until after Beijing. Not for Lochte. "I was in a boot for a week," he says, and then got right back in the water.

In early April, just before he left for the short-course world championships in England, he took a nasty fall while trying to jump over some obstacles on his skateboard. It wasn't as bad as the scooter crash, but he ended up pretty bruised and battered.

You'd think his coaches would make him take it easy before the games. Nope. "I've kind of taken the approach to let him go," says Gregg Troy, Lochte's coach. "If we zero in now and take things away, that's going to add stress. I think a big key for him to succeed in swimming is the fun factor. I shouldn't say we don't talk about it, though. We do. I told him no motorcycle – he wanted a motorcycle. And he drives too fast, so I tell him, 'What's the difference if you get home 10 minutes later?' But he's been so focused at the pool that I try to leave him alone when he's out of the water."

Lochte says he doesn't concern himself with worst-case scenarios. When I visited him at the U.S. Olympic Training Facility in Colorado Springs in late April, he told me that if he gets injured doing something he enjoys, that's just fate saying he's not supposed to swim in Beijing. If that sounds crazy – and it does – it also perfectly keeps with Lochte's bizarre brand of Zen. "If I just did swimming and sat around, I'd probably go insane and quit," he says. "Sometimes I just need to be able to do something to get my mind off it." Finding that respite in Colorado Springs is tough, though; there's not much to do here, he says. Earlier he revealed that back home he'll egg houses now and then to take the edge off, so I jokingly suggest we sneak out and do that.

"Do you want to?" Lochte asks, eyes wide.

Actually, no. Kidding. Bad idea.

He looks genuinely disappointed.

Two years ago, at the pan-pacific Championships in Victoria, Canada, Ryan Lochte swam the 200 IM faster than he ever had before. And he still came in second. That day, Michael Phelps finished the event in 1:55.84, a new world record. Lochte was just 0.27 of a second behind him, 0.27 from setting the world record, from looking across at his pal on the podium instead of looking up. You can't read "0.27 of a second" in 0.27 of a second.

"That's one of the best races I've seen in my life," says USA coach Schubert. "It was just incredible. The lead going back and forth. It doesn't get any better."

"It's business," Phelps says when asked about narrowly beating his buddy and if that causes tension between them. "We're trying to see who can get their hand on the wall first. We never talk about it."

And while he's gotten the best of his friend in the pool thus far, Phelps and the rest of the swimming world know that no one has made greater improvements in the past four years than Lochte. At last year's world championships in Melbourne he did something no one expected. His fractured ankle hadn't healed from the scooter accident, and flip turns were excruciating, but he won three individual silver medals. Even more mind-boggling, he broke the world record in the 200 backstroke – beating American Aaron Peirsol, the former record holder who hadn't lost in that event since 2000, and winning gold in that event. It's hard enough to swim world-class times with your limbs in top condition, let alone with a fractured fin. What's more amazing, Lochte didn't even qualify for the 200 backstroke in Athens. In less than four years he went from not participating in the event to holding the world record.

Considering the way Lochte has trained since 2004, the results are really not that surprising. Lochte pushes himself to exhaustion, training to overtake Phelps and best him in the 200 IM. Nine times a week he endures two-hour pool sessions, totaling 50,000 to 70,000 meters. About every ninth week, he increases to 90,000 meters – that's roughly 55 miles.

He's also overhauled his stroke. George Heidinger, a USA Swimming biomechanics specialist, videotaped Lochte's training sessions to help identify the swimmer's weaknesses. In 2004, according to Heidinger, Lochte's stroke was much less refined, and his breathing wasn't as regulated. His new stroke is "much more symmetrical," Heidinger says, allowing him to power through the water more efficiently.

Lochte's biggest upgrade of all, though, was to add a dolphin kick. (After diving into the water, a swimmer stays submerged for as long as possible, emulating a dolphin's movement to take him farther than if he were on the surface.) Phelps, long considered the best dolphin kicker in the world, has used it to his advantage for years. In 2004, Lochte hardly ever used it; now, Heidinger says, he is "regarded as one of the top dolphin kickers, if not the best, in the world. It's very, very difficult to make that kind of improvement in just four years." And to make sure he's doing everything he can to catch his rival, Lochte also spends two or three days a week on weight training.

To stay one stroke ahead, Phelps has hit the weights, too, a measure he hadn't taken prior to the fall of 2006. "It's something he needs," Bowman says. "I don't think you can get much new speed without it."

Phelps is also constantly improving his technique. "This is an ongoing thing," Bowman says with a laugh. "We've been working on his breaststroke since he was 11. It's a long-term project."

When I mention to Phelps that he's still the favorite in Beijing, he balks. "No one is a lock," he says. His swimming may not be where he wants it, but at least he has rediscovered his talking points.

"If there were any locks, they'd cancel the Olympics and hand out the medals." Then, thinking about what his statement might portend, he shrugs and adds, "Favorites fall."

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