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Mike turn-off

Me, I’m pulling for Lochte.

The rivalry doing flip turns through the first week of these Olympics surfaced Thursday with an unsettling splash. In preparation for a news conference featuring the U.S. swim team, officials set up eight name placards on a stage ... before suddenly removing six.

Michael Phelps and his personal coach, Bob Bowman, would speak first, and speak alone.

Ryan Lochte and the rest of the team’s stars would speak later.

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Said Phelps: “We’re all our own people.”

Said Lochte: “I can imagine at times that he does get more exposure.”

Yeah, I’m cheering for Lochte.

The rivals share a uniform, yet they don’t. The rivals share the water, yet they swim in different worlds. When they meet in the 400- and 200-meter individual medley -- the world’s two best swimmers facing off in two of the Olympics’ premier swimming events -- they will be diving in from opposite sides of the pool.

Phelps is a 14-time Olympic gold-medal winner who could be the greatest Olympic athlete ever. He is also a curious dude who has been ripped by a teammate for his work ethic, ripped by another athlete for his distant personality and photographed celebrating a victory by sucking on a marijuana bong.

Lochte is a three-time Olympic gold-medal winner who could be the hottest Olympic athlete here. He is also an embraceable dude who wears weird shoes, sticks fake gold grills on his teeth and pals around with the world.

Said Phelps: “Some people like to express their feelings in words, some people like to express it in actions. I’ve always done that by swimming.”

Said Lochte: “I’m friends with everyone. ...Even before a race, I’ll talk to anyone on the pool deck. Sometimes they don’t speak English, so I guess I’m really just talking to myself.”

Yes, I’m hoping it’s Lochte.

They are at the same point in life, both 27. They are at the same level in the water; Phelps says he will be appearing in his final Olympics, and Lochte claims to just be getting started.

Since Lochte broke a 17-race losing streak to Phelps in the 200 IM two years ago, they have been separated by barely a drop of chlorine, a rivalry that peaked at the recent Olympic trials when Lochte won the 400 IM and Phelps won the 200 IM.

So close, yet so far.

Perhaps the best examples of their differences occurred after Thursday’s news conference, when teen sensation Missy Franklin laughed and gently scratched the back of Lochte’s head as she walked off the stage.

Earlier, Phelps had told reporters that Franklin had refused even his innocent offers of advice.

“I’ve told her if she needs anything, she should come to me, ask me, whatever she needs, call me, text me ... ask me any questions,” Phelps said. “She hasn’t.”

Phelps does not seem like the kind of guy who could be a guru. He seems concerned only with Phelps, unable to focus on anything past his goggles and unable to endear himself even to his teammates.

Listen to Tyler Clary, who swam with Phelps at the University of Michigan and recently had the nerve to rip a guy who won a record eight gold medals in Beijing.

“I saw a real lack of preparation ...basically, he was a swimmer who didn’t want to be there,” fellow Olympian Clary said to the Riverside Press-Enterprise. “The fact that he doesn’t have to work as hard to get that done, it’s a real shame.”

Listen to Ronda Rousey, former Olympic judo competitor who is now a mixed martial arts champion, talk about Phelps’ attitude in Beijing.

“Michael Phelps kind of annoyed me a little bit,” she said in a video interview with ESNewsreporting.com. “We had this club thing....Michael Phelps needed his own private section of the club to be, like, private for him.”

Rousey’s advice to Phelps? “Get over yourself. All you do is swim.”

Maybe it’s because Phelps’ face continually drips across our landscape like those sub sandwiches he advertises. Maybe it’s because he seems as aloof as Tiger Woods. Or maybe it’s just because, frankly, he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy you would want to hang with over a beer.

But if I have to root for someone -- and we all do -- I’m rooting for the guy who works out by pushing giant tires and dragging shipyard chains while focusing his entire life for this moment.

Said Lochte: “This is the year I’ve put everything into ... all that work, all those early mornings, all those big tires.... It’s all going to pay off.”

Said Phelps: “I don’t see myself throwing tires...or chains.”

While Lochte seems famished, Phelps actually compared these Olympics to dessert.

Said Phelps: “This is really how many toppings do I want on my sundae.”

He’s had his sweets. It’s time to push away from the table. I’m cheering for the other guy.

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke


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