“Can the laidback Ryan Lochte win a record nine golds?” asked Jessica Salter in The Telegraph last week. Such an achievement would surpass the 8 golds won in Beijing by Lochte’s huge rival Michael Phelps and while the man himself stated it was possible, he didn’t give anything away as to how it could be achieved. Phelps’ domination in 2008 was a triumph of logistics, talent and to some extent luck (think of the fingertip victory in the 100 fly and the incredible anchor leg from Jason Lezak), so here are some of the considerations if Lochte is to mount the podium 9 times in London.
Firstly Lochte has to win all of his primary individual events. In Shanghai last year he took an impressive 4 individual gold medals in the 200 IM, 400IM, 200m freestyle and 200m backstroke. His dominance in the backstroke and 400IM last year would mark him out as clear favourite for those events, but Michael Phelps will not have taken his defeats in the 200IM and freestyle lying down and represents a formidable challenge and not one that can be overlooked lightly. But let’s assume that Lochte can prevail as he did in 2011 – four down.
Next it’s paramount that he gets himself the full complement of relay medals. For the 4 x 200m freestyle, that’s a strong possibility – The US being pre-eminent in 2011 and winning the world title by over 2 seconds from France. Then it gets interesting and Lochte faces two challenges – firstly he needs to get into the US team for the 4x100m freestyle and medley relays and then they have to actually win them – neither is a foregone conclusion.
In the 100m freestyle, individually Lochte only ranked 94th in the world in 2011, but this could be as much that he didn’t swim the event tapered. He did swim the heats in Shanghai, splitting 48.28, which could have got him into the final team, and many were surprised he wasn’t picked, so he has a chance there. But can the US win it? Australia won handsomely in 2011 and has the two fastest men ever in textile amongst their ranks in the shape of James Magnussen and James Roberts, making them hot favourites. France, who also beat the US in 2011, also cannot be discounted. It’s tough to see the US taking this one, but then many said the same thing at the 300m mark of the final in 2008.
In the medley relay, while the US will start as favourites, it’s tougher to see how Lochte fits in. He is an incredible all rounder, but this means he doesn’t have the raw speed needed to dislodge Nathan Adrian from the anchor leg or the fly skills to knock out Michael Phelps. Realistically that leaves the 100m backstroke leg for Lochte, but in 2011 he was only the 5th ranked US backstroker, in 53.79, behind Phelps, Nick Thoman, David Plummer and Matt Grevers. His textile best in 2010/11 was a 53.69 from the Pan Pacific Champs, where he would have swum tapered. Breaststroke is not worth considering – Lochte ranked 124th in 2012 in 62.30, excellent for a medley swimmer, but well off the pace needed.
So to make that team, he’ll need to significantly improve his backstroke speed, which seems eminently possible. That done, and three relay victories secured – seven down.
Now it gets interesting, as at this point Lochte has to add extra individual events. As he said himself when asked about winning nine golds, “I know it is possible, it’s just a matter of how many events my body can physically handle in a row.”
The 100m backstroke is the obvious choice as an extra event – he will need to improve to make the medley team in any case and is already a phenomenal 200m swimmer. But assuming he makes through the US trials, in his way stands the formidable Camille Lacourt (although not co-world champion Jeremy Stravius who failed to make the French team) and Ryosuke Irie both of whom swam sub 53 in 2011, and in Lacourts case will be looking to swim sub 52 following his 52.11 in the 2010 European Championships. By far a foregone conclusion, especially when you factor in that the semi finals and final are in the same sessions as the 200m IM in London.
But if we assume that Lochte can pull out a 100m backstroke win, there is still one more event to add. Breaststroke is out. Fly would appear to be a long shot, which really only leaves the freestyle events. Magnussen is the scorching hot favourite in the 100m, so the 400m would seem to be a more logical choice given Lochte is a world class 200m freestyler and 400IM swimmer. Could he beat Sun Yang, Tae Hwan Park, Paul Beidermann et al? It’s hard to say – his only ranked swim in the last 2 years was a 3:55.50 at the Charlotte Grand Prix – hardly evidence of his capability. But this event throws up another scheduling conundrum – both 400 free and IM are on the first day in London, quite a double to attempt. Without Phelps in the IM it’s possible Lochte would win not at full pace, but it would be a tall order.
So there it is – possible on paper, but highly improbable in the context of the programme and his rivals. Lochte is a fearsome competitor however, one who loves the underdog tag, and so if anyone can do it, he could be the man. However, as with Phelps, he will need everything, everything, to run his way, both in the lead up and on the day.