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Who Will Rule the Pool: Phelps or Lochte?

Michael Phelps was crowned the king of the swimming world in 2008 after going eight-for-eight at the Beijing Olympics. These victories not only added to his previous gold medals for an unheard of 14, but made him the only athlete to reach the mark. With Phelps entering the London Olympics this summer we can only assume that the king will come forth to preserve his reign. But will he?

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It’s been almost four years since Phelps captivated the world by breaking Mark Spitz’s record and taking home an extraordinary haul of gold medals. While the 14-time Olympic champion has taken it easy and really not pushed himself since then, his close friend and biggest competitor Ryan Lochte has been doing the exact opposite.

Lochte has been on the rise over the past couple of years. After Phelps began his post-Beijing run with a victory over Ryan Lochte in the 200 meter freestyle at the 2009 U.S. Championships, Lochte has really stepped up his game. Only a year after his defeat to Phelps, Lochte finally edged him out in not one but two races: in the 200m individual medley and the 200m backstroke, in which Phelps finished fourth.

Lochte again proved himself at the 2011 FINA World Championships by beating Phelps in the 200m freestyle, a race in which Phelps had beaten him in 2010. Lochte also beat Phelps in the 200 IM. In that race, he broke his own record set two years earlier in Rome by a tenth of a second and stunned the crowd at the Oriental Sports Center with a world record — the first in a 50-meter pool since polyurethane speedsuits were banned two years ago. “I wanted to do something that everyone though was impossible,” Lochte said. “Since they banned those suits, everyone thought a world record would never get touched again. I just wanted to show everyone that can happen. That’s why we have records – they’re meant to get broken.”

Phelps finished in 1:54.16, a personal best that went under the 1:54.23 he swam at the 2008 Summer Games. The silver medal left Phelps temporarily at a loss for words, which led him to decline to speak with reporters immediately after the races, delaying his comments until the formal news conference that always follows the medal ceremony. He later apologized, admitting he needed time to collect his thoughts. “I thought I had it on the last stroke,” Phelps said. “I felt myself gaining and gaining and gaining. It is what it is. I fell short. I think that [these] races will provide a lot of motivation for the next year. There is lots of frustration going through my head.”

Lochte’s coach, saw this victory as a breakthrough on Lochte’s part. “I don’t know if we’re going to call a few hundredths of a second passing Michael Phelps, but it puts us in a good lead.” When Phelps was asked about his defeat he simply answered, “I didn’t win because I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been.”

After his defeat to Lochte, the 26-year-old says he is once again focused. His goal is to be at his best in the London Games this summer. Over the past year, Phelps has shoved aside any distractions and has put all his energy into preparing for what will likely be his final Olympics.

At the moment, Lochte will likely enter at least seven events in London: the 100 and 200 backstrokes, the 200 and 400 IM and the U.S.’s three relays. Phelps has not revealed how many events he will participate in, but he has said it will be fewer than eight.

With Lochte at a 4-2 advantage over Phelps in head-to-head battles, it seems as though Lochte might claim the title of king of the swimming world, but we all know what Phelps can do when he’s properly motivated. Phelps’s great career and Lochte’s current form are not enough to sway the balance: the new king will be decided in London.

Who do you think will come out on the top?