Sports needed this.
Swimming needed this.
And of course, Baltimore needed this.
Michael Phelps is back, which means swimming is back and even more importantly, it means one of the most underappreciated sports rivalries is back: Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte.
You can’t have a sport without a rivalry, which makes fans gravitate to the competition, whether it’s on land or water.
The Ravens have the Steelers, and the Orioles have the Red Sox. But those are teams and Phelps is a 28-year-old man, well, more like a demigod considering what he does in the pool isn’t human.
How many great athlete vs. athlete rivalries are there right now? LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant? Nope. Talk to me when Durant beats James in the Finals. Baseball? Who?
What about boxing? The Baby Boomer generation grew up with Muhammad Ali, who never stopped throwing jabs – verbally or physically – at opponents. Now, we have Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao talking about fighting each other instead of actually, well, you know, getting in the ring and proving who’s the man.
I miss the days when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird went at each other. I long for the time when Michael Jordan had to learn to fail against the Pistons before conquering them. And how about the Knicks and Heat? I still crack a smile when I see footage of Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy clinching to Alonzo Mourning’s leg like a toddler during the 1998 playoffs.
Every decade can be defined by its rivalries. The 70s had the Steelers and Cowboys and even NASCAR was in the mix, with Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough trading punches next to the track at the 1979 Daytona 500. Awesome.
The 80s had had Martina Navratilova against Chris Evert and the Edmonton Oilers against everyone else. The 90s had Pate Sampras and Andre Agassi.
Sports forces us pick sides. You can’t like the Terps and Duke, just as you can’t cheer for the Yankees and Red Sox. You either cheer for Tiger Woods or the rest of the field, with the same applying to NASCAR drivers.
That’s why swimming needs Phelps back in the pool. Lochte, a native New Yorker, simply isn’t polarizing enough, or good enough, to carry swimming the way Mark Spitz did decades ago. How many professional swimming races did you watch after Phelps called it quits? That’s what I thought.
But Phelps says he’s coming back and immediately, swimming’s relevant again.
How else can you explain that all sessions of the three-day Arena Grand Prix at the Skyline Aquatic Center in Arizona were sold out. A pair of $40 all-session tickets was being sold for more than six times that on the Internet. Phelps should get a cut.
All of the sudden, swimming was in a news cycle dominated by the NHL and NBA playoffs and the release of the NFL schedule. On SportsCenter, Phelps received more coverage than the Orioles.
And for good reason. The only way Phelps, an avid Ravens and Orioles fan, could be any more “Baltimore” is if you covered him in Old Bay. When Phelps is at the starting block, our city is there with him. By having Phelps, we could go to anywhere and say our guy is better than your guy. Phelps isn’t one of those athletes who lives here during the season and spends the offseason in Miami.
Phelps lives in Canton.
Even Lochte, an 11-time Olympic medalist, acknowledges swimming is much better with Phelps in the pool than on the golf course.
“With what he’s done for the sport of swimming and him leaving kind of broke my heart a little because I love getting on those blocks and racing him,” Lochte told reporters after his winning time of 51.93 seconds was two-tenths of a second faster than Phelps (52.13) in the 100-meter butterly on Thursday night in Arizona. “Now that he’s back, I’ve got a big ol’ smile on my face.”
And so does everyone else. We get another chapter in the Phelps-Lochte saga, with the two biggest bullies on the block, lining up at that the starting block, wanting nothing more than to touch the wall before the other guy.
Phelps, a Rodgers Forge native, has won a world record 22 Olympic medals, including 18 gold medals that probably are worth more than Dundalk.
The guy’s super human. Who else can go from retiring after the 2012 London Games and, with minimal training, jump and beat Lochte – and everyone else – by swimming the fastest qualifying time in the 100-meter butterfly in 52.84 seconds?
“Him and I can’t stand losing to one another,” Phelps told reporters. “We both want to beat each other as many times as we can. That’s the competitiveness we both have. When we do get in the water, we’re going to do everything we can to get our hand on the wall before [the other] in every single race. And it’s the same for him. We’ll fight to the end, in any stroke, in any event we swim.”
Consider: Phelps is a three-time Olympic champion and current world record-holder in the 100-meter butterfly and his time on Thursday night tied for the fourth fastest in the world this year.
“It’s one meet; it’s one race,” Phelps told reporters after the final. “It’s a long way whether I decide to continue or not. This was awesome. I’m really excited about how things went. I do know what I need to do if I want to continue and swim faster.”
How much faster would his time have been he wasn’t overweight or hadn’t spent the past 18 months on the golf course, where he claimed to have struck 20,000 balls in the past six months?
“I’m doing this for me,” Phelps said at a press conference before the competition. “I’m doing this because I enjoy being in the pool and I enjoy the sport of swimming. I am looking forward to wherever this road takes me.”
Michael, we all know where this road is leading: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the 2016 Olympics.
Follow me on Twitter @JonGallo1