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The Buzz: Ryan Lochte and the Solo Spotlight

11/1/2012

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

When Michael Phelps stepped out of the limelight, hung up his suit and goggles, and officially retired, he left oneRyan Lochte (medium) man standing there, awaiting the throne. Though the 2012 London Olympics were billed as a “Michael versus Ryan” rivalry (and though Ryan won the 400 IM match-up between the two on the first electric night of swimming), Michael Phelps became the bigger story. His 22 Olympic medals. His 18 gold medals. His retirement. His contribution to the sport.

Now that Phelps has retired, Ryan Lochte takes over the spotlight. Though Missy Franklin has ascended to become another (and unexpected) media darling, Ryan Lochte is the veteran, the professional, the go-to superstar, the guy with over a million Twitter followers and whom SNL deemed worthy to parody.

Lochte takes over a sport that has a “Michael Phelps vacancy.” No longer are the headlines going to read, “Michael versus Ryan.” It’s as if Michael Jordan retired, and suddenly, everyone’s looking for a new rival. No longer will swimming feature its own “Magic versus Bird” rivalry. No longer will swimming pundits agonize over which team they believe in: Team Ryan or Team Michael.

For the first time, Team Ryan is on its own.

Could not having Michael Phelps to race, to motivate, and to swim against affect Ryan’s future career? Could not having Michael Phelps at each swim meet be a potentially negative factor? Time and time again, we’ve heard that Michael was pushed by Ryan, and Ryan was pushed by Michael. Now, Michael is gone, retired, and onto other endeavors. Meanwhile, Ryan Lochte is back in the pool, training for the Rio Olympics, seemingly atop of the swimming throne, in the spotlight by himself.

In one week, we begin a new era, what could be labeled The Ryan Lochte Era. Lochte has frequently said he wants to do something unprecedented in the world of swimming. He wants to take swimming to a new level. In one week, he’ll begin that quest at the Minneapolis Grand Prix.

And in one week, swim fans will see the new Phelps-less era in swimming, and who is ready to ascend the throne.

No More Michael
This summer, NBC live-broadcast eight nights of live prime-time Olympic Trials coverage. This was unprecedented. We had never seen this before in swimming. Most of the time, swimming is relegated to an hour-long NBC 2pm Sunday slot, when most people are outside in the park or BBQing with friends. Suddenly last summer, swimming was featured on one of the biggest networks in America, live, every night, for an entire week.

Most of this had to do with the “Phelps Effect.” People wanted to see Michael Phelps, the hero from Beijing. And they tuned in. The 2012 Olympic Swimming Trials were the highest rated trials of any sport since 2000. Much of this had to do with what the media billed as “swimming’s rivalry,” Michael versus Ryan. We all ate it up. It made for great TV. It made for great pool-deck buzz. I have never seen, in my swimming career or writing career, a pool deck with more electricity and excitement than in the moments right before that initial 400 IM match-up between Lochte and Phelps.

But Michael is no longer around. Yet to be seen is how this will affect the media’s interpretation of the sport. To be sure, to swimming aficionados, the sport is still as exciting, thrilling, heart-pounding as ever. We understand the nuances of the sport. We understand the up-and-coming personalities. We understand the amount of training that comes down to one moment, one race.

Mainstream media, generally, has a harder time comprehending this. For example, when you get two bona-fide celebrities swimming the same event against each other, headlines are easier to write. They are easier to conjure, like: “LOCHTE UPSETS PHELPS.” People will read those headlines. People eat up those headlines.

Now, we’re going to see what happens without Phelps in the pool, swimming against Ryan. For years, the career of Ryan Lochte has been defined in terms of Michael Phelps: Where does Ryan stand in terms of Michael? Can Ryan conquer Michael once and for all? Will Ryan beat Michael? Is Ryan a better swimmer than Michael? Is Ryan more in shape than Michael?

For the first time, we’re going to see a new angle on Ryan Lochte’s career: It will be defined in terms of Ryan Lochte.

The Lochte Era?
Enter the Ryan Lochte Era. Or, what could be the Ryan Lochte era. The defending champion in the 400 IM is set to take the next four years, set to win more medals, break more records… unless someone else comes along and challenges.

That someone else could be Tyler Clary. He’s another swimmer whose career has frequently been defined in terms of Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. When Clary broke through and conquered the Olympic field in the 200m backstroke, he created his own name. Clary, should he continue on to Rio, is an excellent IMer. He could set the stage for more great, memorable races. Then again, we may see someone new, someone emerge from the NCAA scene or the age group scene and challenge all-around swimming supremacy.

But most eyes will be on Ryan Lochte, fairly or unfairly. No other current swimmer has the same magnetism, or the same star-quality, as the Lochtenator. He has vowed to continue swimming to Rio. He could do some unprecedented things. He could win nine Olympic gold medals. No one knows.

What we do know is this: Ryan Lochte, for the first time, will take over the spotlight by himself. It’s a new era for Lochte’s career. It’s a new era in swimming.

It begins in a week.


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