Phelps dives for 8 golds; unless Lochte's faster

Aug. 08, 2008, 8:07 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Michael Phelps dives into the pool Saturday night, ready to turn the Beijing Games into his coronation.

So will Ryan Lochte.

Phelps you certainly know because of his six golds in Athens and the hype surrounding his bid for eight this time around. Lochte is someone you might as well meet now.

A shaggy-haired Floridian, he is Phelps' fun-loving teammate - and toughest foe. He'll have two chances to play spoiler at these Olympics, maybe even in the very first event, the 400-meter individual medley.

"It's going to be a lot of fun," Lochte said. "And I hope for the best."

The last time Phelps and Lochte raced was at the U.S. Olympics trials. Both broke the world record, although Phelps finished 0.43 seconds faster than Lochte.

Imagine that: Breaking the world record, but not winning the event.

It could be exactly the motivation Lochte needs to catch his nemesis. Or the jolt that further sharpens Phelps' focus.

Either way, it should be a compelling 4 minutes and roughly 5 seconds.

"It's the (event) I'm most excited to swim," Phelps said. "I've been working over the last year to really fine-tune a few things that will hopefully improve my 400 IM. We'll see what happens."

NBC will make the showdown the focus of its prime-time broadcast Saturday night. In Beijing, it actually will be Sunday morning. Look for prelims as part of the daytime broadcast Saturday.

Nearly everything that happens Saturday night and Sunday morning (and the rest of the Olympics) will be available via one of NBC's services, from cable to Internet. Yet the very best stuff will be on the flagship channel.

In the morning, that includes a possible U.S. sweep in women's individual saber finals, and live coverage of women's volleyball between U.S. and Japan. The prime-time show will include men's gymnastics, live beach volleyball and loads of swimming.

Why not? From the architectural splendor of the Water Cube to the buzz about the new LZR suits that are helping demolish records, this might be the glory sport of these games for the U.S. In addition to Phelps and Lochte, the first day of coverage will include world record-holder Katie Hoff in the 400 medley and 41-year-old Dara Torres in the 400-meter freestyle relay, plus medal contenders Larsen Jensen and Peter Vanderkaay in the 400 freestyle.

"I believe swimming has come of age. ... It's just gotten so fast," said Eddie Reese, the U.S. men's coach. "I've seen training the previous nine months before our trials like nothing I've ever seen, and they don't train in the suits. So it's got to be a combination. I mean, if they have little outboard engines then you could give all the credit to the suits."

Lochte and Phelps could finish so far ahead of the rest of the 400 IM pack that judges look for rocket propulsion. They're that good.

Phelps is chasing Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals set in 1972. Should Lochte beat him, it wouldn't be much of an upset because swimming insiders consider Lochte the No. 2 swimmer not just in the U.S., but the world. His credentials include the second-fastest times of the year in four events; alas, Phelps is first in three of them.

Challengers in the water, they're good buddies on land - even spending a week in Beijing together after last year's world championships in Melbourne. They also can be found together on the cover of the latest issue of Men's Journal magazine.

In Beijing, Lochte will chase Phelps in the 400 and 200 medleys, then square off in the 200 backstroke against Aaron Peirsol, with whom Lochte shares the world record. Also look for Lochte in the 800-meter freestyle relay; the 200 freestyle is the other event at which he's among the world's best, but he skipped it at trials, going for the 100 back instead. He finished third, one spot too low to qualify.

The upside, of course, is having even more time to think about the medleys.

And about beating Phelps.

"I know what I'm capable of doing and I know what he is," Lochte said. "It's going to be a battle."