USA swimming's biggest names face tough obstacles

LONDON — The United States swim team has 49 members, three of them household names. To the flag-waving audience back home, the American swimmers to watch are Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin.

Phelps and Lochte are portrayed as bitter rivals, Franklin as the impossibly sunny kid whose every swim turns to gold.

In both cases, the truth falls short of the hype. The Olympic swimming competition starts today — a coronation for the retiring Phelps, a push toward the throne for Lochte, a coming-out party for Franklin.

Phelps will be the first American into the pool, in a morning heat in the 400 individual medley. That is the race that Phelps vowed never to swim again after the Beijing Olympics, and he won't say why he changed his mind.

"I just wanted to have another go at it," he said.

Really? Not really.

"I'll give you the honest answer after I'm done," he said.

Phelps ascended to Olympic immortality by winning eight gold medals in Beijing, in eight tries. His Olympic career, measured in medals: 14 gold, already the record, and 16 in all, two shy of the record for total medals.

He could win seven gold medals here, but his first hurdle could be his biggest. If he wins the 400 IM, he would become the first swimmer to win the same event in three consecutive Olympics.

Before the Olympic trials, and amid his flurry of magazine covers, Lochte proclaimed, "This is my time." Lochte and Phelps raced against each other four times at the trials; Lochte posted his only victory in the 400 IM.

Lochte won by less than a second; no one else in the field has a time within three seconds of Lochte this year.

"I'll put my money on Michael Phelps when they're head-to-head," said Mark Spitz, who won a then-record seven gold medals in the 1972 Munich Olympics.

"Michael Phelps by far has got more experience than any other Olympic athlete. He has more experience knowing how to race. He has more experience winning by one one-hundredth of a second."

Lochte could win seven medals here. He already has six, more than any other U.S. men's swimmer besides Phelps, so there is substance to the hype — even if the hype focuses on two men at the exclusion of the rest of the team.

"The natural tendency for people is to want to know, 'Who's the best?' The fact of the matter is, those two guys have got more medals than anyone on the team," said Tyler Clary, who will swim two events. "That's just the way things are going to flow."

NBC might promote Phelps vs. Lochte with all the bluster of a heavyweight fight, even if the two will race against each other just twice here, and even if they are teammates in the nightly card games in the Olympic village.

"Ryan and I won the first spades game," Phelps said. "Our record hasn't been so good lately."

Franklin could win seven medals here too, but that is highly unlikely. She has the best time in the world this year in her two backstroke events, and she could swim the three relays, but her times in her two freestyle events do not rank among the top eight in the world.

The greatest concern for Franklin might be out of the pool, not in it. She was in middle school during the last Olympics, and she is about to be smothered in global attention.

"It's really fun. It's really flattering," said Mary T. Meagher, who won three gold medals in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. "You'll get to do all these cool things once it's over. You'll go to parties. People will buy you dinner.

"There's a responsibility to it too. You're constantly interrupted. Your friends will have to wait for you. It's hard for them. It's hard for you. She might need a 'bad guy' to help her if she needs to get someplace."

Franklin, 17, said veteran swimmers have advised her how to manage the pressure. She was her usually bubbly self Thursday, talking about the "cute bedspreads" in the Olympic village and — typical teenager — how she was mortified by her father's behavior.

"Apparently my dad is calling everyone 'mate'. I'm like, 'Wrong country, dad,'" Franklin said. "As long as he doesn't mention he's related to me, it's fine."

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