“Who’s the world’s best swimmer?” was the preeminent question in the sport four years ago. It’s a question Ryan Lochte can’t answer today, 21 months before the Rio 2016 Olympics.
“I honestly don’t know,” Lochte said Tuesday. “There’s so many competitors out there … that have gotten a lot faster in different strokes, it’s hard to tell.
“I would like to think that I’m in that category, if not the top one then one of the top just because I train not just for one event, for multiple events. It’s hard to say who’s the best.”
In 2010, Lochte won four individual gold medals at the year’s major international meet, the Pan Pacific Championships, including both individual medleys and twice as many golds as Phelps.
Lochte and Phelps did not swim in any of the same finals at the 2010 meet, but Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, still said Lochte was “the best swimmer in the world this year. No question.”
Lochte also won four individual events to Phelps’ two at the 2011 World Championships, keeping his edge in swimming supremacy.
But at the 2012 Olympics, Lochte won one individual medal of each color, while Phelps had two golds and a silver. Advantage Phelps, barely.
Phelps retired, of course, giving Lochte little competition in 2013. Lochte won two individual events at the World Championships and finished off the podium in two others.
China’s Sun Yang, who swept the 400m, (non-Olympic) 800m and 1500m freestyles at 2013 Worlds, was named FINA’s Swimmer of the Meet, though Lochte won Swimmer of the Year.
This year, a new star broke through. Japan’s Kosuke Hagino swept the individual medleys at the Pan Pacific Championships and won two more individual silver medals at the Gold Coast, Australia, meet.
Phelps won gold in the 100m butterfly and silver in the 200m individual medley. Lochte came home from Australia with a single medal, silver in the 100m fly.
“He’s been coming on every year,” Lochte said of Hagino. “He’s been getting quicker and faster, but it’s not just him. There’s plenty of other swimmers.”
Age must be taken into account. Lochte is 30. Phelps is 29. Sun is 22. Hagino is 20.
It’s unknown if or when Phelps will return to swimming following a USA Swimming suspension that lasts into April and also includes next summer’s World Championships. Lochte moved to a new coach last year and is coming off an injury-riddled season.
Lochte was unquestionably the man to beat going into the last Olympic year. But much has changed.
“2011 was one of my best years,” Lochte said, “but that was 2011. Whatever happened that year, it’s all said and done. It’s over.”