SwimSwam Pulse is a recurring feature tracking and analyzing the results of our periodic A3 Performance Polls. You can cast your vote in our newest poll on the SwimSwam homepage, about halfway down the page on the right side, or you can find the poll embedded at the bottom of this post.
Our most recent poll asked SwimSwam readers which rivalry was best during Michael Phelps‘ career:
Question: Who was Michael Phelps‘ greatest rival during his career?
Michael Phelps had no shortage of rivals, friendly or otherwise, over the course of his illustrious career.
Early on, it was Australian freestyle legend Ian Thorpe, primarily due to the comparison made between the two as Phelps began to make a name for himself on the international stage, and the proposition that he would be the one to overtake Thorpe as the world’s best swimmer.
Around that same time, Phelps’ American teammate Ian Crocker emerged as one of his primary adversaries, shocking Phelps in the 100 fly at the 2003 World Championships. Crocker’s swim, which broke Phelps’ day-old world record and marked the first time anyone had gone under 51 seconds, sparked the creation of a documentary film, “Unfiltered,” which dove into the friendly rivalry between the two swimmers.
Phelps got the better of Thorpe in the 200 IM at the 2003 World Championships (an ‘off’ event for Thorpe), and then Thorpe won gold in the epic ‘Race of the Century’ battle with Phelps and Pieter van den Hoogenband at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
With Crocker, Phelps won a razor-thin battle in Athens in the 100 fly, then lost handily at the 2005 World Championships before topping Crocker at both the 2007 Worlds and 2008 Olympics.
Between those two early-career rivals, Thorpe was probably the better foe for Phelps, simply because there was always a bit of underlying tension between them, primarily due to Thorpe publicly doubting Phelps’ ability to achieve the level of greatness he aspired to. Crocker was more of a direct competitor to Phelps (Phelps may not have raced the 200 free in Athens had it not been for Thorpe), but the two were always friendly and it was a purely competitive rivalry.
Ryan Lochte first emerged on the scene in 2004, winning a surprise silver medal behind Phelps in the 200 IM in Athens, and then really became a viable rival in 2006, pushing Phelps to a new world record in the 200 IM (1:55.84) while finishing less than three-tenths back (1:56.11) at the Pan Pacific Championships.
Phelps and Lochte would go on to have numerous memorable battles over the next decade, and although Phelps came out on top more often than not, Lochte certainly had his moments, particularly in the post-Beijing four-year cycle leading up to London 2012. London also marked Lochte’s lone head-to-head individual Olympic gold medal victory over Phelps in the 400 IM.
In the swim where Phelps swam the fastest 200 IM of his career, Lochte beat him and broke the world record in 1:54.00, a mark that still stands today.
Back to 2008—Phelps, at his peak, is on a historic run for eight gold medals at a single Olympics in Beijing. Outside of a scare in the men’s 400 free relay, where Jason Lezak‘s legendary heroics get the Americans a narrow win over France, Phelps hasn’t been seriously challenged individually, with the biggest hiccup being a goggle leak in the final of the 200 fly.
Then comes the heats of the 100 fly, where Serbian Milorad Cavic fires off a warning shot with a new Olympic Record of 50.76, qualifying ahead of Phelps.
Cavic would follow up by going quicker than Phelps in the semis, and then made headlines by publicly saying it would be good for swimming if he beat Phelps. That lit a fire under Phelps, who memorably won gold over Cavic by .01 in the Olympic final.
The next summer, after more choice words from Cavic regarding Phelps’ decision not to use one of the newer, faster super-suits (sticking with the Speedo LZR from 2008), Phelps unleashed a new world record in the 100 fly of 49.82 to upend Cavic once again.
Three years later, in 2012, South African Chad le Clos earned a shocking upset victory over Phelps in the final of the 200 fly in London, sparking an intriguing rivalry. They traded words in 2015, when Phelps was racing at U.S. Nationals around the same time le Clos was at the World Championships, and ultimately things came to a head in the 200 fly final at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Phelps came through with yet another clutch performance, winning gold while le Clos faded and missed the podium.
All of the rivalries Phelps had were unique.
Out of the five names listed, Cavic probably took on the ‘villain’ role the most, but he was also the only one who never beat Phelps head-to-head on the big stage. Thorpe and Crocker only specialized in one of Phelps’ five primary events, and le Clos and Phelps only had a few marquee head-to-head matchups since Phelps didn’t attend either the 2013 or 2015 World Championships.
That leaves us with Lochte, who 79 percent of readers voted as Phelps’ greatest rival over the course of his career.
Their rivalry had a bit of everything. Longevity, competitiveness across a number of different events, and the opportunity to race each other more often than the others since they’re both from the United States. The only thing missing from the rivalry was any real tension between them, but that ultimately didn’t matter when they stood behind the blocks. It was must-see TV regardless.
Cavic picked up just over eight percent of votes, followed by le Clos, Thorpe and then Crocker, who all got a handful. While I figured the poll would be a bit closer in some regard, it’s hard to argue against the Phelps/Lochte rivalry standing above the rest.
Below, vote in our new A3 Performance Poll, which asks: Which recent world record was most impressive?
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The A3 Performance Poll is courtesy of A3 Performance, a SwimSwam partner.