Rivals share a complex relationship

For the last two years, Ryan Lochte has been the No. 1 swimmer in the world. But this year, Michael Phelps – who eclipsed him and everyone else at the 2008 Games in Beijing with eight gold medals – has been resurgent. Now they are on course to face off in London in the 200-meter freestyle; the 200 individual medley; and possibly, the 400 IM, the decathlon of swimming.

Can Lochte supplant Phelps as the world’s premier swimmer? Or will he forever be the Red Sox to Phelps’ Yankees, the Frazier to his Ali, the Alydar to his Affirmed – the brilliant No. 2 who would’ve been the best, save for one?

“The truth,” the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes observed, “is forced upon us very quickly by a foe.”

Or a rival, who though not usually an enemy is often less than a friend.

Squaring off

Rivalry is as old as Cain and Abel and as fresh as Peyton and Eli. It exists across cultures and disciplines, transcending human nature. Whenever Alydar challenged Affirmed – the last horse to win the Triple Crown, in 1978 – Affirmed would cast an eye on him, cock an ear and giddyup. He hated losing to Alydar, who remains the only horse to finish second in all three Triple Crown races.

A rival pushes you to new heights.

“I think for me, I was motivated to swim faster because of my rivals,” says Rowdy Gaines, three-time Olympic gold medalist, who’ll be calling the Phelps-Lochte races for NBC.

Phelps and Lochte have been motivating each other for years, thrilling fans from the 2008 Olympic Trials in Omaha to the World Championships in Shanghai last year, where often the margin of difference was the space of a turn or the time it took to place a finger on the wall at the finish.

But part of what enriches their rivalry – or for that matter that of the extroverted Novak Djokovic and the introspective Rafael Nadal in their battle for tennis’ No. 1 ranking and possibly, an Olympic gold medal – are the ingredients that often define friendship – common cause, complementary temperaments.

“It’s one of those deals where we are hardly alike but like a lot of the same stuff,” the intense Phelps writes of the laidback but meticulous Lochte in his autobiography “No Limits.”

They’ve been known to share a headset in the ready room before a meet, singing along to the same hip-hop music. In the suite they had at the Beijing Games, Phelps even let Lochte trim his hair. You can find scores of images and videos of them laughing at events, out to dinner or racing remote-control model boats in a pool.

Similarly, there are whole websites devoted to the Nadal-Djokovic post-match hug-fests, their backstage visits to Broadway shows, their occasional pre-match bouts of “soccer tennis” (using heads and feet, no rackets). Such camaraderie, however, seems to have been more abundant and less stilted before Lochte and Djokovic attained the No. 1 rankings in their sports.

“Ryan used to be the hunter,” Gaines says. “He was OK with being second. But then he got fed up with that and I think it’s difficult for Michael to accept.”

“That’s natural,” legendary tennis coach Nick Bollettieri says of Nadal’s regrouping to counter Djokovic’s challenge. “Today players stay more within themselves and their teams.”

“Maybe it depends on the sport or activity,” says Port Chester-based psychologist Wendy McKenna, a professor at Purchase College. “I love competitive surfing. From the way these guys talk about each other, they also seem to like each other.”

But surfing isn’t yet big money in America, and money, Bollettieri says, changes everything:

“Tennis is a big business today and you don’t want to give your opponent anything that will give him a competitive edge.”

The remains of the day

But even in tennis, perhaps the most individualistic of sports, players must rely on one another to warm up and raise funds. Clearly, Nadal is counting on Djokovic for a July 14 exhibition at Real Madrid’s Bernabeu Stadium, where they will set the record for the largest crowd (80,000 plus) ever to witness a tennis match, all for Nadal’s and Real Madrid’s foundations.

What makes Lochte and Phelps’ rivalry doubly fascinating is that they are longtime teammates as well, having sparked the relay team that upset the favored Ian Thorpe and the Aussies in the 4×200-meter freestyle event at the 2004 Games in Athens – a race that Phelps would later describe as one of the best.

In London, Lochte and Phelps may swim as many as three relays together, and Gaines expects them to be as professional as they have been in the past. That’s as it should be, says former Knicks’ head coach Mike D’Antoni.

“I don’t think rivalry is good within a team,” says the man who’ll once more be an assistant coach for the Team USA basketball squad. “You don’t want to do anything at the expense of the other guys.”

Indeed, some Knicks’ fans think it was the star temperament of Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, rivaling the team play of Jeremy Lin, Landry Fields and others, that cost the Knicks a better season and D’Antoni, a Rye resident, his job. Similarly, there are Yankee fans – perhaps the quintessential rivalry experts, thanks to their gleeful detestation of Red Sox Nation – who think Alex Rodriguez’s initial rivalry with Derek Jeter tampered with a winning formula. This year’s Potentially Hazardous Rivalry Award, however, must go to the New York Jets, whose fans have been walking on eggshells since they heard quarterbacks Tim Tebow and Mark Sanchez would be sharing the same air (and tabloids).

For Sanchez and Tebow and all rivals real and imagined, time proves to be the greatest rival of all. Who wasn’t moved last year when we saw a trembling Muhammad Ali slowly make his way the funeral of Joe Frazier? Thirty-six years before, Ali had pummeled Smokin’ Joe’s eyes shut at the Thrilla in Manila. Now he paid tribute to his opponent, a symbol of all that had been lost and yet still remained.

In the end, rivalry falls away and what is left is the passion – for a sport, an ideal, for excellence itself – that bound the rivals together in the first place.

“The reality is such that we really cannot be real friends as we struggle for a place in history,” Djokovic has said of Nadal. “But one day when we say goodbye to tennis…I would love to sit down with (him to recount) what we’ve been through.”

Lochte isn’t waiting for someday.

As he’s told NBC, “What is cool about it is no matter what the outcome is, if I beat (Phelps) or he beats me, no matter what, we are still going to be friends….

Read three poems from Georgette Gouveia’s related
“The Games Men Play” series here.
 “Water Music”
In This Place, You Hold Me
The Court of Mercury

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1.Yankees/Red Sox

While we love Giants-Dodgers, Cubbies-White Sox and Yanks-Mets, Bombers-Bosox is the mother of all rivalries, engulfing whole regions. From the Babe to Bucky to Boone, this one has it all.

2. Ali/Frazier

The Greatest and Smokin’ Joe’s blood rivalry was capped by the Thrilla in Manila, which Ali would describe as the closest he ever came to death.

3. Borg/McEnroe

Tennis has produced great rivalries – Evert-Navratilova, Borg-Connors, Connors-McEnroe, Federer-Nadal – but for sheer fire and ice contrast it’s hard to top these two and their 1980 Wimbledon final heart-stopper.

4. Affirmed/Alydar

With each passing year that produces no Triple Crown winner, the thrilling 1978 trifecta between these two descendants of Man ’o’ War and Native Dancer – which Affirmed won by a length, a neck and a nose – looks better and better. Check it out on YouTube and tell us if it doesn’t bring a chill, and a tear.


Cold War, 1980. Team USA’s amateur hockey players versus the Soviet pros, Olympic medal round. “Do you believe in miracles?” Yes, still.

6. Jets/Patriots

We could’ve gone with Giants-Eagles, Giants-Cowboys, Giants-Redskins, heck, Giants-Anybody, but for utter loathing – and Tebow thrown into the mix – you gotta go with Jets-Pats. Thanksgiving 2012, baby, grab a drumstick and be there.

7. Magic/Bird

“Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were L.A. (Lakers’) showtime versus Boston (Celtics’) bluecollar grit,” Mike D’Antoni says. Together, these former collegiate rivals sparked the NBA in the 1980s and the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team.”


The friendly rivalry between the swashbuckling Arnold Palmer and “the Golden Bear,” as the pudgy, big-hearted Jack Nicklaus was known, began with Nicklaus’ come-from-behind victory at the 1962 U.S. Open in Oakmont, Pa., Nicklaus’ first as a pro.


It’s called “the Battle of the Broads” (for Broadway and Broad Street) with the two teams facing off as division rivals since 1974 and in the Stanley Cup playoffs 10 times (with the Flyers taking six).

10. Harding/Kerrigan

In this corner, sporting big blond hair and a hard-luck, trailer-trash background, Tonya Harding. And in this corner, wearing Vera Wang ice princess-y costumes that belied a less than Katharine Hepburn pedigree, Nancy Kerrigan. The whiny Nancy got a knee whacked, a silver at the 1994 Lillehammer Games and a trip to Disney World. The pathetic Tonya got community service and a life right out of a country-western ballad. It was rivalry at its soap operatic best.

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