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In the spotlight

    Americans Michael Phelps, left, and Ryan Lochte will go head-to-head in the 200 and 400 individual medleys in London.

There’s nothing like a good rivalry to get the competitive juices flowing.

At the Olympic pool in London, get ready to savor Michael Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte.

They are the world’s two greatest swimmers, and their head-to-head races at the U.S. Olympic trials were downright epic. Of course, that was merely a tantalizing warmup for the events that really matter in Britain.

“I always love competition,” Phelps said. “You can probably count on there being some other close races in the next couple of weeks.”

Already the winningest Olympian ever with 14 gold medals, Phelps will swim seven more events in London in what he insists will be his final meet as a competitive swimmer. The 27-year-old has long stated his plans to retire as soon as his hands hit the wall for the final time at these Games.

Lochte has no plans to quit the sport, and the only parting gift he’d like to send to his friendly rival is a couple of Olympic silver medals, which is actually a color Phelps doesn’t have.

“It’s hard to say who is the best swimmer,” said Lochte, who beat Phelps twice at the 2011 world championships but lost to him three out of four times at the U.S. trials. “We’re both great racers, and we have been going back and forth for so long.”

While much of the attention on the men’s side will focus on Phelps and Lochte, there’s another American ready to break out for the women. Well, to be more accurate, for the females.

Missy Franklin is still just a girl, only 17 and looking forward to her senior year of high school in Colorado. But “Missy the Missile” won five medals at last year’s worlds and is scheduled to swim a staggering seven events at the Olympics.

With her boundless enthusiasm — just about everything she says includes the word “awesome — and a frame that’s custom-built for swimming fast — 6-foot-1 with size-13 feet — Franklin has a chance to be a huge star in London.

“It sounds absolutely amazing,” she said. “I’m thrilled to see what’s going to happen this summer.”

There are other compelling stories, as well, from Japanese star Kosuke Kitajima trying to sweep the men’s Olympic breaststroke events for the third straight time to sprint stars James Magnussen of Australia (like Franklin, also known as “The Missile”) and the tongue-twisting Ranomi Kromowidjojo of the Netherlands (who playfully tells anyone who asks how her name is pronounced, “Just like you write it.”)

But two swimmers figure to stand above all others at these Games.

Phelps and Lochte.

“Neither one of us likes to lose,” Phelps said.

Phelps actually qualified in eight Olympic events, giving him a chance to match his record haul of gold medals from the Beijing Games four years ago. But he dropped the 200-meter freestyle, believing a slightly smaller program would give him a better chance to succeed, considering he didn’t train nearly as hard for these Olympics as he did leading up to 2008.

Plus, racing seven times instead of eight removes any pressure to repeat his Great Haul of China, when he broke Mark Spitz’s record for most golds at one Olympics.

“We won’t hear that number ‘eight’ again,” said Bob Bowman, Phelps’ longtime coach.

That leaves him with two races against Lochte: the 200 and 400 individual medleys. The laid-back Floridian, known for his wild wardrobe and gaudy jewelry and blurting out nonsensical words such as “jeah,” won both events at the 2011 worlds, beating Phelps with a world-record time in the 200 and easily taking the longer race with Phelps sitting out.

Phelps, the two-time defending Olympic champion in both, returned to the 400 IM only this year after vowing in Beijing to never swim the grueling race again. Lochte beat him by a fairly comfortable margin at the trials, but Phelps came back to win the 200 IM — the two swimmers never more than inches apart, swimming virtually in sync for all four laps.

Look for more of the same in London, especially since Phelps has clearly been paying attention to Lochte’s repeated declarations that “this is my time.”

“I’m always a fan of quotes,” Phelps said with a sly grin.

One thing that hasn’t made much news in the lead-up to the London Games: the high-tech suits that were once all the rage.

Speedo unveiled its LZR Racer, developed with help from NASA, shortly before the Beijing Olympics, setting off a virtual arms race to come up with the fastest suit. The situation got downright silly by the ’09 worlds in Rome, where some swimmers competed in rubberized suits that came with everything but a motor.

After an astonishing 43 world records were set in Italy, governing body FINA finally said enough is enough. New rules were adopted that restricted suits to textile materials and limited the amount of body coverage. Since then, only two world records have been eclipsed. There likely will be more in London, but not many.

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