By Julian Linden
OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) - Ryan Lochte is either a man on a mission or a masochist. The London Olympics will decide which of those is right.
The American is undoubtedly one of the world's fastest and most versatile swimmers and perhaps the most ambitious.
Not only will he compete in four energy-draining individual events in London, he is taking on Michael Phelps in two of them. His mission is to bring down the greatest Olympian of all time and show the world he is the best swimmer on the planet.
By even attempting the feat, the 27-year-old from Florida is running the risk of burning himself out by taking on too much, but insists he will not baulk the challenge.
"In 2008, Michael Phelps set the limit, eight gold medals. That's amazing," Lochte said. "But he's human. He's not a fish or anything like that. He's just like all of us, and he trained really hard to get there.
"Honestly, I feel like this is my time. I have definitely put in the work and it's something that I believe so strong that I know I can make this happen."
Lochte's confidence is not based on any fanciful whim or the American tendency for trash-talking. He already has six Olympic medals, including three gold, and beat the seemingly-invincible Aaron Peirsol to win the 200m backstroke final in Beijing.
His early races against Phelps were all one-sided losses but rather than throw in the towel, he used the defeats to spur him to greater things. He ditched junk food and embarked on an exhausting training regime that involves flipping tractor tires, dragging shipyard chains and tossing beer kegs to build muscle.
With Phelps initially lacking motivation in the aftermath of Beijing, the tables were turned and Lochte was transformed from the hunter to the hunted.
Lochte beat Phelps in the 200 metres individual medley at the 2009 world championships in Rome then did it again at last year's world championships in Shanghai, and beat him in the 200m freestyle as well.
Revitalized by his defeats, Phelps got back to work and the pair go to London as genuine rivals with little between them.
At the U.S. Trials last week, Lochte easily beat Phelps in the 400m medley but lost the 200m freestyle and 200m medley by a fingernail. Phelps will swim both medleys at the Olympics but pulled out of the 200m freestyle.
With both swimmers still in heavy training and expected to go much faster in London after they taper off, neither man was putting much premium on the results, knowing the Olympic pool is the only battleground that counts.
"I'm used to racing against him. I've been doing it for eight years now," Lochte said. "He's one of the toughest competitors out there but in the past four years I've gone a lot faster, and I know what my body can handle.
"This meet was just a stepping stone for what I really want to do in London."
While Phelps may have more gold medals, Lochte is quickly emerging as the face of the American men's team.
His laid-back approach to life has endeared him to fans and sponsors alike. At the U.S. Trials, he dragged himself huffing and puffing out of the pool after swimming three lung-bursting races in an hour but still stopped to sign autographs.
"He's always been good about stopping and doing that. At some point in life someone didn't give him one, and he said he never wanted to be that kind of guy," said his coach Gregg Troy.
"It's a little bit of a weakness. He has to learn to say no once in a while a little better."
Lochte's boyish charm has made him a hit in the corporate world and he has signed a range of endorsements deals, hawking everything from sports drinks and swimwear to razors and insurance.
"The thing that separates good swimmers from great swimmers is knowing how to push your body to limits where other people don't want to go," Lochte said.
"I told myself I'll quit swimming once I stop having fun, and right now I'm having a blast. I'm not thinking about the money or medals or anything else, I'm just having fun racing."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)
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