OMAHA, Neb. – The first Nebraska showdown between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte came at the edge of a curtained-off interview room, not far from the temporary pool where the U.S. Olympic swimming team will be decided.
Phelps rubbed at his thick mustache, which looked like something out of the Village People, and queried Lochte on his smooth face.
"I had one, but I had to shave it," Lochte said, extending a hand to his rival.
"C'mon, man, you've got to keep it as long as you can," Phelps replied, breaking into a big smile beneath all that hair.
The meeting Saturday between swimming's two biggest stars was downright cordial. Expect it to be much different when they get in the water at the Olympic trials, which is being held at a temporary pool set up in a 13,200-seat arena along the Missouri River, just as it was in 2008.
Phelps is a 14-time gold medalist trying to put an appropriate finish on his brilliant career at the London Olympics. Lochte is the guy standing in the way, a laid-back Floridian who beat Phelps twice at last year's world championships and keeps saying over and over again, "This is my time."
"Michael Phelps definitely set the limit," Lochte said. "But, I mean, he's human. He's not a fish or anything like that."
Phelps has already hoarded more gold than any other Olympian, and he's clearly regained the motivation that faded away after the Great Haul of China, where he toppled Mark Spitz's iconic record by winning eight events.
As he was winding down from six weeks of grueling training in the Colorado mountains, he wondered why he kept getting up so early instead of seizing the chance to sleep in. Then, it hit him: He's excited about the trials. He's pumped about what he can do in England. He's driven to end his career with one more dynamic performance.
"We've done everything. We done a lot of amazing things, a lot of cool, exciting things," Phelps said, sitting next to his omnipresent coach, Bob Bowman. "Now, it's just time to have fun. I'm a lot more relaxed that I've ever been. We'll see after this week what size cherry I want to put on my sundae."
Lochte has entered a staggering 11 events at the trials, though he'll surely drop several of those and perhaps use others just for training purposes in the preliminaries. Phelps has entered seven races, including the 400-meter individual medley on the very first day of the trials.
Phelps and Bowman were coy about their plans, refusing to say if the swimmer will actually compete in the grueling race he won at the last two Olympics but vowed never to swim again after Beijing. He brought back the 400 IM over the past year and entered it at the trials, potentially setting up his first clash with Lochte, the defending world champion in that event.
"We've got a couple of hours to decide, don't we?" Phelps said, chuckling.
Bowman chimed in, saying they actually had another day to make the call.
"OK, we've got 24 hours," Phelps said. "In 24 hours, we'll let you guys know."
He even skirted a question about when he would shave his mustache, fearing that would reveal his plans.
"I can't give that away," Phelps said. "If I say I'm doing it tomorrow, then you'll know I'm swimming the 400 IM. If I say I'm doing it Monday, that means I'm not. It will come off when the rest of my body hair comes off."
Lochte and Phelps will certainly face each other in two of their best events: the 200 IM and the 200 freestyle. Phelps is the defending Olympic champion in both races (a two-time defending champ, in fact, in the medley). But Lochte took them both at the 2011 worlds in Shanghai, beating Phelps by a total of about a half-second and setting a world record in the 200 IM, just to rub it in.
With that triumph still fresh, Lochte is itching to race Phelps as many times as possible in Omaha, starting with the 400 IM.
"He's the world's best swimmer ever," Lochte said. "I love racing against him. It's fun. He's one of the hardest racers in the world. He'll go toe-to-toe with you until the end. That's excitement for me. I really hope he does swim that."
Another of the top contenders, Tyler Clary, is also very interested in what Phelps decides. Last year, Clary finished second to Lochte at worlds with Phelps on the sideline, but the dynamic changes if all three are in the event. Only the top two earn spots on the Olympic team.
Asked if he expects Phelps to compete in the 400 IM, Clary replied somewhat nervously, "My expectations are no, but stranger things have happened."
No matter what happens, the Phelps-Lochte rivalry figures to be the defining storyline of these eight days in Omaha — even at a meet that also features 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin, rising star Missy Franklin, and two 40-somethings taking one more shot at glory, Dara Torres and Janet Evans.
"For so long, it was just him beating me," Lochte said. "Since 2008, I changed some things in my training and my eating habits, and I've gotten a lot faster. Now, especially going into this meet and hopefully London, this is probably going to be one of the biggest rivalries ever."
Lochte stopped eating junk food — except for an occasional order of potato chips — and added a Strongman-like routine to his weight-training program. He's noticed a big chance in his practice sessions, finding that where he once was thrilled to put together two good days in a row, now he can go weeks at a time with no letup.
He's respectful of Phelps, but not intimidated to race against him day after day.
"I love a challenge," Lochte said. "For me to be in the same era as him, in the same events as him, to be able to race him to the finish, it's awesome. I love it. I get soooo excited when I'm stepping on the blocks and trying to race him."
Rest assured, that sort of talk is pumping up Phelps. He seems to hear everything that anyone says about him — Bowman has a lot to do with that — and can turn even the slightest of slights into a reason to go faster.
Heck, Phelps still remembers what former Australian national coach Don Talbot said about him before the 2003 world championships, something about "being unproven on international ground."
"What did that do? It motivated me," said Phelps, who at that meet set world records in different events on the same day. "Obviously, it frustrates me sometimes, but I just use that as motivation. That's the biggest thing I've learned in my career. I've never once said anything publicly about anyone. I never will. That's how I am. I let my swimming do whatever needs to be done."
Ahh, this is getting good.
Even the other swimmers, who are mostly focused on their own Olympic goals, can't wait to see how Phelps vs. Lochte turns out.
"They push the best out of each other," Clary said, "every time they get in the pool."
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