Michael Phelps can claim to be the greatest swimmer of all-time for the following reasons:
- In 2008, he performed one of the greatest feats in Olympic history by winning eight gold medals from eight events in the pool
– He has set 29 individual world records, which is in itself a record
– He is the most successful swimmer in World Championships history boasting a haul of 26 gold medals
– And his success has transcended and changed his sport
And at the age of 27, the man known as the Baltimore Bullet and the Flying Fish, was primed to add clear water to any pretenders to the throne by netting a further seven golds to his burgeoning spoils of water-based combat at the London Games. The scene was set for history to once again be rewritten and to add to the spectacle Phelps would need to conquer one of the greatest rivalries in sport, on the greatest of stages, to take glory.
The man most likely to end Phelps' gold run was of course Ryan Lochte - the 27-year-old who was the first man to break a long-course world record since the buoyancy suits ban came into place in 2010 and who won five gold medals in the 2011 World Championships by beating Phelps twice in the 200m freestyle and the 200m individual medley. The all-American fight for supremacy of the pool has proved a powerful narrative in the build up to the Games.
The question is now, in the aftermath of Phelps' capitulation to Lochte in the men's 400m individual medley, is there any rivalry left? In fact, even to suggest Phelps had lost out solely to Lochte would be disingenuous as the American former champion finished fourth behind Brazil's Thiago Periera, who took silver, and Japan's Kosuke Hagino who sealed bronze.
Lochte, on beating his double Olympic champion-teammate by a full four seconds, told reporters: "I'm in shock right now, but I knew I could win so I'm happy I could do that.
"I know he gave everything he had, so I'll have to have a chat with him and see how he is after that." When he does Phelps may repeat the answers he gave to the press: that he had felt great for the first 200m but after that it "didn't happen".
For the inward-looking Phelps the result will leave him much to ponder. He has been used to being within tenths of a second to his rival, whether in front or behind, so this will need some reflection, especially given the tight nature of the semifinal in which Phelps struggled to come through intact.
Lochte, on the other hand, will take great confidence into Monday night's hyped rematch in the 200m individual medley. His gregarious personality may yet about to be challenged with the rigors of becoming a multiple champion, a test that Phelps' is well used to.
For the neutral, the hope will be that this has not been the last chapter in what has been a captivating rivalry, one where the exploits and exertions of one has driven on the other to further greatness.
Phelps is on record saying he has often thought about leaving the sport, if he doesn't bounce back on Monday maybe those voices will carry the day. Even if the outcome is not quite so dramatic, a key factor for rivalries to work is being close enough in performance to beat each other, a factor that is now is doubt.
Phelps, more than ever, will need to recapture the form that built the legacy at the top of this page just to stay close. Lochte may have his eyes set on building a legacy of his own.