|Phelps toying with media and fans alike before the decisive mustache shaving|
The majority seems to think this is foolish valor on Phelps' part. The narrative of these last few years has been Phelps slacking while Lochte has pioneered working out 25 hours a day. If you buy that, it stands to reason that Phelps has no chance in an "endurance" race like the 400 IM.
That narrative has changed quite quickly and decisively from four years ago. In the first Omaha trials Lochte appeared to be another in the long line of great American swimmers who were destined to play second fiddle to even greater teammates. At that time, he seemed to be pretty good at finishing behind Aaron Peirsol in backstroke and Phelps in IM. He had broken through against Peirsol in 07 but it seemed more chance than inevitability.
Since Lochte seized the "world's best swimmer" throne in Irvine 2010, one might assume that Phelps is the swimmer with something to prove tonight. That's wrong- Lochte has far more at stake. Phelps has already proven he is not just this year's best swimmer but the greatest of all time. Lochte's Olympic resume, while impressive, is not memorable. As much as he's accomplished over two years, Lochte still has to slay the Phelps dragon again on the biggest stage to secure his immortality.
While the odds seem to be in Lochte's favor, the stands could be quite divided. Phelps mania had its own backlash in the swimming community, with fans eagerly cheering his defeat in Irvine. Now many fans seem to have come full circle. There is a growing sentimentality around watching Phelps swim, as if his defeats humanized him while also making us all painfully aware of how spoiled we were when he was invincible.
Whoever wins, there is one universal truth: it's a great time to be a swimming fan
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