SwimSwam Pulse: 79% Pick Ryan Lochte As Michael Phelps’ Greatest Rival

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 Pollwhich asks: Which recent world record was most impressive?

Which SCM world record swim was most impressive?

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A3 Performance is an independently-owned, performance swimwear company built on a passion for swimming, athletes, and athletic performance. We encourage swimmers to swim better and faster at all ages and levels, from beginners to Olympians.  Driven by a genuine leader and devoted staff that are passionate about swimming and service, A3 Performance strives to inspire and enrich the sport of swimming with innovative and impactful products that motivate swimmers to be their very best – an A3 Performer.

The A3 Performance Poll is courtesy of A3 Performance, a SwimSwam partner.

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29 days ago

There’s also Bietermann (or if being really petty, the Jaked) – plenty of drama and rivalry there even if just at one meet

29 days ago

if you guys aren’t choosing katie’s WR, which she broke by 10 seconds, what is wrong with you

28 days ago

She would’ve been 14:59 in her prime

Reply to  bubo
27 days ago

still impressive that she broke it by ten seconds on her first try

29 days ago

Was there ever any drama between Phelps and Lochte? No. There was more drama with, like, Tyler Clary (Remember that? No you don’t because it was barely any there)! Certainly Lochte was his primary competition…. but primary rival, if he ever had one… has to be Cavic.

Mr Piano
Reply to  R&R
29 days ago

In 2012 there was some tension when there was talk of Lochte having surpassed Phelps, and Lochte seemed to be saying, ok Beijing is over, “it’s my time now”.

Reply to  R&R
29 days ago

You can have a friendly rivalry. It doesn’t have to have drama.

Reply to  R&R
29 days ago

It can’t be a rivalry if one part wins over the other all the time. Otherwise even I can do more trash talking to Phelps to become his biggest rival.

29 days ago

It’s crazy how Lochte and Phelps are still the standard for IM events.

29 days ago

Lochte’s 2011 Worlds is one of the best single meet performances in history.
1:44.44 200 free
1:52.98 200 back
1:54.00 200 IM (WR)
4:07.13 400 IM

Three of those times would have won gold in Tokyo and the 200 free would have been a bronze and only two tenths off gold.

Reply to  Aquajosh
29 days ago

And its probable that the suit Lochte wore was worse than the suits worn in Tokyo

The unoriginal Tim
Reply to  poolboy
29 days ago

It’s certain

Samuel Huntington
Reply to  Aquajosh
29 days ago

That 200 back time seems unreachable today.
And then you remember the WR is a second faster 😳

There's no doubt that he's tightening up
Reply to  Samuel Huntington
29 days ago

I mean Rylov, Larkin, Irie (in textile) have all been 1:53 low in the past. Rylov as recently as last year at the Olympics.

Samuel Huntington

Right, but do you think we will see a 1:53 this season (22-23)? I don’t.

29 days ago

Until Crocker beat Phelps in the 100m butterfly in 2003 and 2005, Phelps was only a distance athlete.

Phelps practiced for being sprinter to get past Crocker, who the one of the Greatest Butterfly strokers.

There's no doubt that he's tightening up
29 days ago

Lazlo Cseh erasure


Lazlo always overlooked.

Cseh was a beast all things considered

Wanted to say Cseh at first as well, but gotta realize that while Cseh was always there next to Phelps, he never posed a real threat to him like the others did


Yeah…I mean Cseh often gets brought up as “maybe he would’ve been the greatest if it weren’t for Phelps,” but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “remember that race between Phelps and Cseh?”


And Thiago, to a lesser extent

29 days ago

I think the best rivalries have to have some animosity. Had to be cavic

Reply to  Curious
29 days ago

It’s not a rivalry if the same guy wins every time

Reply to  Alaverga
29 days ago

So Michael Jordan stopped having rivalries after 1990? Mayweather never had a rivalry?

Reply to  Curious
29 days ago

That’s correct

Reply to  Alaverga
29 days ago

Yeah, but Cavic actually touched first in 2008… if you want to go there… 😀

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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