The Buzz: Michael or Ryan?
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
In the days, weeks, and months leading up to the London Olympics, one common question was asked: Team Michael or Team Ryan? Though most swim fans simply chose “Team USA,” the question lingered on the minds of anyone looking forward to these two superstars racing it out in the pool for Olympic gold. Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte would face off in the two IM events in London. The two events that dictate best all-around swimmer. The two most dominant swimmers in the world battling it out. Who would win? Michael? Ryan?
On the first night of the Olympics in the final of the 400 IM, Ryan Lochte made his statement. He soundly defeated the Baltimore Bullet head-on in swimming’s most grueling event. Michael Phelps hardly even qualified for the championship heat. It was obvious this was not the Phelps from 2008, and this was not the Lochte from 2008. The tables had turned. The media declared Lochte the new Supreme Superstar of Swimming. Lochte was King. Lochte 1, Phelps 0.
Then, the tables turned again. In the finals of the 200 IM, the race looked like Lochte’s to lose. He held the world record. He was the favorite to win, based on his dominating 400 IM. But Phelps doing what he does, the Baltimore Bullet emerged victorious. It was one of those moments where swim fans sit back and gasp for breath, “Wow.” Fans were speechless. Phelps was a guy who was practically crucified in the media just days earlier after a “disappointing” performance in the 400 IM. A race where afterwards Phelps looked absolutely dumbfounded in the interviews. Like he was already planning his post-Olympics vacation/retirement. However, Phelps won gold in that 200 IM, and surprised the world once more.
Phelps 1, Lochte 1.
This Monday at USA Swimming’s Golden Goggle Awards in New York City, Phelps and Lochte battle once more, although, not in the pool. They are both nominated in the most prestigious of the Golden Goggle Award male categories, Male Athlete of the Year. The other nominees, Nathan Adrian and Matt Grevers, certainly are deserving of the award, especially for their momentous and spectacular individual feats in the 100 freestyle and 100 backstroke, respectively.
But no swimmer has meant more to the sport than Michael Phelps over the past 12 years, and no swimmer has beaten him like Ryan Lochte. When it comes to the past four years, you can’t talk about one without talking about the other. Michael and Ryan. Ryan and Michael. And so, the swimming fans were asked once more during voting of the Golden Goggle award:
Team Michael? Or Team Ryan?
Ultimately, Michael Phelps will probably win this award. This will be, presumably, the final time we see Aqua Man accept an award at the Golden Goggles, at least as a competitor. As Phelps waves his final goodbye and recedes from the limelight into the vast comforts of aquatic retirement, it would be a fitting honor to give the Male Athlete of the Year Award to the swimmer who has changed the sport of swimming forever.
But who had the better Olympics? Who had the better year of competitive swimming? You could argue that Lochte had some pretty incredible moments, including that 400 IM match-up. You could argue that Lochte won the first event of the meet, the most grueling race in swimming, when both swimmers were fully rested and prepared and ready. Before the media and exhaustion of the Olympics set in, Lochte beat Phelps. Before Lochte attempted a brutal double, Lochte beat Phelps.
Or you could argue that Michael Phelps had the better Olympics. He won six medals, four of them gold. He became the all-time greatest Olympian in history. He helped three relays earn medals. He swam a crucial butterfly leg in that final race of the Olympics, the 400 Medley Relay, a leg that ultimately was the deciding factor between silver and gold. And he scored even on the “Lochte vs. Phelps” match-ups in that 200 IM.
On Monday, at least to me, there’s no contest. Michael Phelps should win the Male Athlete of the Year. He should win Male Athlete of the Millennium, if there was such an award. While Ryan Lochte has had a phenomenal year of success – winning 5 Olympic medals is an incredible feat – when all was said and done, Michael Phelps was, well, Phelpsian.
And so, once more, it’s “Ryan versus Michael.” Except this match-up doesn’t seem exactly like a competition. This will be an acknowledgement that, for the final time, our sport and nation has been blessed with these two remarkable swimmers and competitors. It will be an acknowledgement that we’ve seen phenomenal races, races that I don’t think will be replicated for a long, long time. This final award signifies how thrilling, heart-pounding, and edge-on-our-seats exciting our sport has been these previous four years. All the guessing. All the speculation. All the exciting seconds before those epic match-ups.
Team Michael? Team Ryan?
How about Team USA? How about the fact that neither of these two could have achieved what they achieved without the help of the other? How about that without Ryan, there would probably be no all-time-greatest-Olympian-ever Michael? And without Michael, there would probably be no world-record-setting Lochte? I wish they could both accept the award, shake hands, high-five, and then maybe swim a 100 IM in a nearby hotel pool, just for kicks.
But instead, Michael Phelps will win the final Golden Goggle Male Athlete of the Year Award. And then he will wave goodbye, one last time.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and “Splash Magazine.” Follow him on Twitter at MikeLGustafson.