Ryan Lochte, left, and Michael Phelps greet each other as Lochte leaves… (Mark Humphrey / Associated…)
OMAHA — Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte shared a handshake, a few seconds of small talk, a little bit of laughter. The two swimmers bumped into one another in the bowels of a sports arena Saturday, Lochte walking out of an interview room just as Phelps headed in.
This could have been different. This could have been pro boxing, where the combatants meet on stage and stare down one another. After all, these Olympic Games will come with a convenient, easy-to-follow plot for the American television audience: Phelps vs. Lochte!
"I don't want to say 'Clash of the Titans,' " Phelps said, but he did.
"It's probably going to be one of the biggest rivalries ever," Lochte said.
How about a few more superlatives?
"I honestly think we could change the sport," Lochte said. "There is no doubt in my mind that, in the Olympics, this will be the biggest talk -- or one of the biggest talks.
"Me against Michael."
The U.S. Olympic swimming trials begin here Monday. The London Olympics are a month away. There will be other countries, other sports, other medalists.
But swimming dominates the first week of the Olympics, and the prime-time rivalry is set, assuming no calamities at the trials.
You know Phelps. He was America's hero at the Beijing Olympics. Eight events, eight gold medals. No one had done that.
He won eight medals in Athens too -- six gold, two bronze. The totals: 14 gold medals, an Olympic record; 16 total medals, two shy of the Olympic record held by Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina.
Lochte makes a fine foil for Phelps. Lochte has six medals of his own, three of them gold -- two in relays and one in an event in which Phelps did not swim. The other three medals: silver when Phelps won gold, two bronzes when Phelps won gold.
Fame and fortune awaited Phelps upon his return from Beijing. Lochte hit the pool, hard. He hit the weight room, harder. He cut out fast food, candy and soda.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not a health freak," Lochte said. "Every once in a while, I have to splurge and get those potato chips."
In last year's world championships, Lochte won gold in every event he entered, beating Phelps twice in the process.
Said Lochte: "Michael definitely was like, 'You know what? I've got to get ready.' "
Said Phelps: "I tried to get away with faking as much as I could. The results were pretty crappy. ... Obviously, he has kind of destroyed me over the last couple years at major meets."
In swimming, the Olympics is the meet that matters. Phelps would not say Saturday in which events he plans to compete, but he previously said another try at eight golds is out of the question.
He appeared at ease Saturday, just descended from six weeks of altitude training in Colorado, in advance of what he insists will be his last Olympics. He spoke repeatedly of relaxing and enjoying the experience this time, after what he called "the stressful week we had four years ago of trying to make sure everything was perfect."
If Phelps does not strike gold this summer, well, so be it.
"If somebody says that's a failure, I don't care," he said.
"I don't think anything he could do or not do will change his legacy," said his coach, Bob Bowman. "He's the greatest Olympian of all time."
This is Lochte's chance to establish a legacy.
He recently appeared on the cover of Vogue, posing shirtless between soccer star Hope Solo and tennis champion Serena Williams. He loves to talk fashion, and photo shoots too.
"It's nice not to do a photo shoot in a Speedo," he said.
He confessed he jumped on a skateboard last week. "Don't tell my coach," he said.
However, even as he said he was "the same old Ryan," anxiety slipped into his words. He is here to win. For him, relaxing and enjoying the experience might not be possible.
"This has probably been one of the longest years of my life," Lochte said. "I guess the time is here. We'll see how it goes.
"I've been training so long for this moment. It just felt like it took forever."
The headline rivalry so threatens to overshadow the rest of the U.S. men's swimming team that the first four questions asked to Tyler Clary on Saturday had to deal with Phelps or Lochte, or both.
Clary has a faster qualifying time than Phelps in two events. With the spotlight on Phelps and Lochte, Clary was asked whether he rued that he might have come along at the wrong time.
"Maybe I came along at the perfect time," Clary said.
He did not begrudge Phelps and Lochte the attention.
"I've been training day in and day out for years to win an Olympic gold medal," Clary said. "If I can pull it off, that will make the Olympic experience that much more sweet.
"It will be like, 'Where did this guy come from?' "