One legend. One phenom. Only one winner

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From left: Jed Jacobson/Getty Images; Martin Schoeller for TIME

Michael Phelps, left, and Ryan Lochte headline the showdowns in London

It’s hard to miss Ryan Lochte. There he is, shirtless on the cover of Vogue. He’s one of the new faces of Gillette, and he’s featured in Ralph Lauren ads. On TV he’s chugging Gatorade. He’s in demand with media and sponsors alike, but he won’t admit that all this lavish attention is primarily a result of this one fact: he’s the closest thing to a rival that Michael Phelps will have in London.

Understand that he’s not there to be a prop for Phelps. Lochte is a phenomenal swimmer. His effortless strokes, which he learned from his first swim coach — his mother — have earned him 17 world and six Olympic medals. And his legendary dryland training in Florida, lifted from the strongman regimen of tire flipping and keg tossing, as well as abolishing fast food from his diet, has given him enviable power to slice through the water. But he’s had the good fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) of swimming in the era of Phelps, a once-in-a-generation athlete. Phelps made history at the Beijing Games by lapping up eight gold medals in a schedule so brutal that he is declining to repeat it in London. (He’ll be swimming in just seven events.) Even phenomenal swimmers pale in comparison to that. In Beijing, Phelps punched Lochte out in the 200-m and 400-m individual-medley (IM) events, Lochte claimed gold in the 200-m backstroke (Phelps didn’t swim it), and the two teamed up for gold in the 4 x 200-m freestyle relay. But when Lochte touched the wall ahead of Phelps in the 200-m IM at the world championships last year and demolished Phelps’ world record too, that’s when the rivalry talk began.

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Given how much time these athletes spend with their faces in the water, there’s not much time for trash talk in swimming. Rivalry? “I don’t think like that,” says Lochte. “It’s everyone else that thinks like that.” But Lochte and Phelps are linked together like Olympic rings. It’s inevitable in any contest of the world’s best athletes — even one that occurs once every four years — that the same competitors will meet, vying in a tug-of-war for records, medals, sponsors and bragging rights, pushing one another in an ever escalating battle to be on top.

London, Lochte has said, is “my time,” and despite his admirable respect for Phelps’ accomplishments, both admit that the chummy feelings end on the starting blocks. Even the laid-back Lochte, whose favorite response to all things good is “Jeah,” says that when it’s race time, “neither one of us likes to lose. He knows I’m right there, and I know he’s right there. We push each other every day whether or not we train together.”

In fact Phelps, 27, who is about a year younger than Lochte, credits the loss to Lochte in the 200-m IM for reawakening his waning interest in swimming after Beijing. “He was just rolling over me, and it wasn’t fun to be on that end,” Phelps says. Out of the water, the two couldn’t be more different. Whereas Phelps is intense, Lochte is more … well, he lets his fashion choices — he designed his own red, white and blue sneakers for the Olympic trials — speak for him. Even at the risk of injury, he squeezes in skateboarding and pickup basketball games to offset the drudgery of laps, much to the dismay of his anxious but resigned coach.

But it works. “Everyone says that if he wasn’t around or if this were a different era, I’d be the greatest swimmer ever,” says Lochte about his rival. He doesn’t lament swimming in Phelps’ shadow. It just makes the challenge of racing that much more of an adrenaline rush. “Any chance that I can race the best people in the world, I’d be more than happy to,” he says. He’ll get two opportunities to do that in London, in the 200-m and 400-m IM races, which are among the most anticipated showdowns of the Games.

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