- Wayne Drehs, ESPN Senior Writer
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OMAHA, Neb. -- Some 48 hours before the culmination of their highly anticipated showdown at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, the two greatest swimmers in the world shared a moment here Saturday afternoon.
It wasn't much. A handshake. A half-hug. A how-are-you. Then, Ryan Lochte, with his lime-green backpack, and Michael Phelps, with his bushy moustache, were on their way. But the five-second exchange, sandwiched between two 30-minute sessions of Lochte and Phelps talking about beating each other, made for compelling theatre.
For this is the headline story of next week's trials. Sure, the main goal is to take 1,829 qualified swimmers and fill 52 U.S. slots for London, but the majority of questions that filled the interview room Saturday were about the Lochte-Phelps rivalry and just who is going to come out on top this summer.
Just as compelling as their brief interaction was what the two superstars had to say. Up first was the cool and confident Lochte, reminding everyone yet again that he feels like this is "his time." He added that he loves his rivalry with Phelps and believes the interest surrounding the two of them butting heads this summer could potentially "change the sport."
Then came the ultra-calm Phelps, coyly refusing to say whether or not he'll swim Monday's 400 IM, insisting he's trying to enjoy his final Olympic run and selling the narrative of being an underdog. Yes, an underdog.
"He's the world-record holder, the world champion in a couple events," Phelps said of Lochte. "He has been lighting up the last couple of years in the swimming world. I guess you could say people are trying to catch him."
Whether or not this is what Phelps truly thinks, you can believe it's what coach Bob Bowman has been telling him. When asked at the end of his press conference if Lochte's confidence affects him, Phelps admitted it does serve as added motivation. He hears what people say, he sees what they type on Twitter, when they tag him and Lochte, and he often finds it "frustrating."
Phelps compared it to 2003, when Australian coach Don Talbot said the American was unproven; or in 2008, when another Aussie, Ian Thorpe, said winning eight gold medals could not be done, it was impossible. Now it's Lochte providing a little added inspiration with Phelps refusing to fire back.
"I've never once said anything publicly. I never will," Phelps said. "That's not how I am. I let the swimming do whatever talking it needs to, has to, will do, whatever. That's how I've been [in] my career and that's how I'm going to finish it. A lot of people can talk the talk, but they can't walk the walk."
When asked Saturday who the best swimmer was at this meet, Lochte deferred. With Lochte currently entered in 11 events this week and Phelps seven, the pair could potentially go up against each other as many as six times. Scratches are likely, but there's no question all eyes will be on both of them anytime they're together on deck.
"I'm just going to have to let that swimming talk this week, and then next week you guys can decide who is best," Lochte said.