SANTA CLARA, CA - JUNE 18: Ryan Lochte swims in the 200 meter butterfly prelim for a time of 2:06.99 at the XLIII Santa Clara International Invitational, a USA Swimming Grand Prix event, on June 18, 2010 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
The greatest moment in Olympic history by a Florida athlete hasn't happened yet. With luck, and a little bit of hard work from Ryan Lochte, it'll happen this summer.
The fate that befalls Lochte reminds me most of another Florida team in the news this month: He's clearly a celestial talent, one with as much promise as virtually anyone, but this is the Michael Phelps Era, just as the Gators baseball team that flamed out in Omaha was playing in the South Carolina Era. It's a testament to Lochte's skill and drive that he — and not Phelps, the greatest swimmer of all time by many accounts — is the favorite to be the most decorated swimmer in London at the 2012 Olympic Games, but it's probably about as hard for Lochte to win qualifying events at the U.S. Olympic Trials, where he'll swim three events on Saturday night, as it will be for him to win gold.
The narrative for Lochte has a catch-22 attached: If he wins, and beats Phelps, people will likely wonder what's wrong with the champion; if he loses, and Phelps beats him, he just loses, second in the world to the best ever. That's rough going for a guy who probably trains a lot harder than the #Jeah tweets and nights out in Gainesville suggest — and, I'd guess, why his marketing is about his eccentricities and style more than his pedigree as a champion.
The thing that could change all of that is a dominant performance in London. What if Lochte wins five or six golds, and a couple more medals, and beats Phelps for the individual ones? Besting the best counts for something, and Lochte failing to match Phelps' ridiculous haul from Beijing — a feat that will never get matched, unless two things like Jason Lezak's ferocious finish in the 400 freestyle relay and Phelps' victory-by-a-fingertip over Milorad Cavic happen for one athlete in a future Olympics — would not make his own accomplishment any worse.
With a great showing in London, and another Olympics or two ahead of him, Lochte could be in the argument over who the second-best swimmer of all time by his 28th birthday in August.
And the only thing bad about being the second-best swimmer of all time is not being the best.
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