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Monday, March 04, 2024

Bad luck first struck Ryan Lochte on June 30, 1985.

That was the day Michael Phelps was born.

Lochte was a month shy of his first birthday in New York when Phelps was delivered in Baltimore, Md.

It's not known how long it took Phelps to crawl or walk, but he quickly caught Lochte, passed him and left him in his wake on the international swimming scene.

At any other time in the history of the sport, Lochte would be looked at as the biggest fish.

But not now, not when Phelps is busy breaking records that Lochte would have held, wearing medals Lochte could have owned and appearing on magazine covers Lochte should have graced.

Tough luck.

Hoping to change his fortune, Lochte has returned to UF to train with the Gators swimming team and its coach, Gregg Troy, for the Beijing Olympics.

In Lochte's typically laid-back, mellowed-out manner, he described what it's like to be at school, but not in school.

"If I want to take a nap, I can take a nap," said Lochte, who is an internship away from graduating with a degree in sports management.

Phelps is more of the competitive sort. When Ian Crocker handed Phelps his only loss at the 2003 World Championships, Phelps reportedly pinned a photo of Crocker in his room as motivation and beat Crocker a year later in the Olympics.

Phelps is ranked among the top three swimmers in the world in six of the 13 individual Olympic events.

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He won a record eight medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Lochte, 23, is starting to make waves, too.

He joined Phelps in Athens and flew back to Gainesville with a substantially lighter medal haul - one gold, one silver - but still a great reward for his first Olympic experience.

Since then, he has closed in on his good friend Phelps and now has him in his sights heading into the Beijing Olympics, which begin on Aug. 8.

Lochte is the only swimmer in the world who can hang with Phelps in the individual medley events, the best tests of swimming because they include all four strokes: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle.

"Sure, they're rivals," said Lochte's father and longtime coach, Steve. "They're the No. 1 and No. 2 best swimmers in the world in a multitude of events. It's healthy competition. Bottom line is Ryan would love to continue to excel and become better."

It's not like Lochte has Phelps' mug shot fitted into the side of his bathroom mirror.

But the thoughts must be there, maybe even in his dreams.

I've got to swim faster than Michael.

I've got to be better than Michael.

I've got to beat Michael.

Then BEEEEEPPPPPP!!!

The alarm blares at 5 in the morning.

Beating Phelps means Lochte must be up before the sun.

As he rises, Lochte is quickly reminded of what he must improve from his experience at the 2004 Olympics.

"Don't eat McDonald's every day for seven straight days," said Lochte, who arrived in Athens at 181 pounds and left at 194 thanks to frequent trips to the fast-food chain in the athletes' village.

So he rips open a granola bar, grabs some fruit, guzzles some orange juice and jets off to practice from 6 to 8:30 with younger swimmers who see Lochte as a role model.

"You're able to put a face on the goal, to see what good swimming is," said UF sophomore Clark Burckle, who lives with Ryan in an off-campus house. "I think he makes everybody step it up more because they all see what he's achieved and they want to do that, too, so it just makes the team better as a whole."

Lochte dries himself off, drinks a shake and lifts weights for another 90 minutes.

After a long morning's work, he drives his 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe back home, looking to see the one who loves him no matter what.

His Doberman pinscher, Carter, waits for breakfast while Lochte feeds himself eggs, pancakes or waffles before taking a nap.

Practice starts again at 1 p.m.

All this for the Olympics?

"It's a great honor to swim for my country, but I don't really think about (Beijing)," said Lochte, who in his free time draws abstracts, like rain drops falling up from the ground into the sky. "I treat every swim meet the same as every dual meet (in college). I've been doing it for so long."

Lochte has less than four months to get into Olympic shape.

He struggled mightily in his first big meet of 2008, the Missouri Grand Prix in February, sliding to sixth in two backstroke events, including one he holds the world record in, and finishing out of the top 10 in four other swims.

By contrast, Phelps won four of his seven events.

But Lochte came back strong at the short-course world championships two weeks ago.

He set four world records and won the 100- and 200-meter individual medleys without Phelps in the field.

Lochte and Phelps will go head to head again in June at the Olympic trials in the most anticipated non-Olympic or non-World Championship meet in recent history.

"It's every bit as challenging to make the U.S. team as it is to get a medal at the Olympics," Troy said. "Everyone who takes it for granted is making a mistake."

Lochte will text message Phelps from time to time, but swimming won't come up.

Instead, they banter about their favorite rappers.

Lochte favors Lil' Wayne.

"'It's tight.' That's about all that is said between us," Lochte said.

Like Phelps, Lochte lets his results and his endorsements do more talking for him.

Lochte made sure he would be remembered upon winning the 200-meter individual medley at the 2007 World Championships.

After receiving his gold medal and standing for the national anthem, Lochte smiled and revealed a sparkling silver, diamond-encrusted grill, a mold that fits over teeth, after being dared by his roommate, fellow swimmer Cullen Jones.

"It got to the point where I was like, 'If I get a medal at this point, I'll wear them on the podium.' They were like, 'No you won't. No you won't,'" Lochte said. "Everyone was in shock that I did that."

That included Troy.

"I wasn't wild about the idea," he admitted, "but it was done tastefully."

Speedo pays the bills for Lochte, who swims in the company's sleek LZR Racer suit.

Lochte also recently did a "Got Milk?" ad and flew to New York for a "Today" Show appearance where Matt Lauer mispronounced his last name.

All the attention is partially due to his perceived rivalry with Phelps.

But for Lochte (pronounced Lock-tee), it's much more than that.

"Even if I do beat him, I guess I still won't be satisfied with swimming," said Lochte, who already has plans for the 2012 Olympics in London. "I set my goals that way. I won't be satisfied until I stop making goals."

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