The battle for swimming supremacy in this year’s Olympic Games has been billed as a two-way contest. There’s Michael Phelps, who headed to London with 16 medals under his belt, and there’s Ryan Lochte, his golden American rival, known as much for his prowess in the pool as for his cheeky tweets, quirky catchphrases (“jeah”), and the diamond-encrusted jewelry he wears in his mouth. In their anticipated first face-off on Saturday, in the 400-meter individual swimming medley, Lochte handily won gold, relegating Phelps to fourth place.
Yet even these marquee swimmers may find themselves upstaged—if not on the medal stand then in the Olympic gossip circles—by a dark-horse competitor: the charmingly uncensored Austrian swimmer Markus Rogan, a two-time silver medalist and World Championships gold medalist who claims a penchant for guzzling blood and is prone to mocking fellow countryman Arnold Schwarzenegger. Rogan and his countrymen will compete against the USA’s Lochte-led team during the 4x200 freestyle relay on Tuesday. Then he’ll go toe-to-toe with both Lochte and Phelps in the 200-meter individual medley, where heats start on Wednesday.
What Rogan, admittedly past his prime at age 30, may lack in Olympic swimming prowess he compensates for with a mischievous attitude. He has no illusions of winning gold over the Americans, he admitted in a telephone interview, but he would consider bronze a great success. “[Lochte’s] got everything on me,” Rogan admits. “The only thing I have is I’m 10 times as smart. Most athletes aren’t very intelligent. The most important skill is turn[ing] your brain off, and that’s quite easy if you’re not that smart.”
The 6-foot-5 Austrian does have a degree from Stanford to back up his boasts. Originally from Vienna, Rogan began his swimming career at Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Va., and has since competed at the Sydney, Athens, and Beijing Olympics.
Much like Lochte, who recently graced the cover of Vogue, the good-looking, lively Rogan tends toward the outlandish. But while Lochte is known to be laid-back—he has named Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke as his favorite movie—Rogan is a bit more intense. He says he drinks blood before competitions to “turn a sheep into a lion.” Swigging blood, he says, “makes me feel like an animal. And it looks really cool.”
Rogan was speaking from Switzerland, where he trained prior to his arrival at the Olympic Village—he showed up to London at the last minute in order to rev up the climactic moment. “I only work for two minutes every four years,” Rogan says. “But those two minutes I have to prepare more than 1,000 hours.”
His most important two minutes begin on Wednesday, Aug. 1, during the first heat of the 200-meter individual medley. The top 16 swimmers from the heats progress to the semifinals, and the top eight then advance to the final. The current world record for the event, 1:54.00, was set by Lochte during 2011’s World Swimming Championship in Shanghai. Lochte is also the record-holder for the 200-meter backstroke for short-course swimming pools, a title lobbed back and forth between Rogan and Lochte since 2005, when Rogan set the world record in Trieste with 1:50.43. A year later, with a time of 1:49.05, Lochte broke the world record at the 2006 FINA Short Course World Championships in Shanghai—only to be bested by Rogan again in 2008 with a new record of 1:47.84. Trailing by just seven one-hundredths of a second was Lochte in second place.
Selected from a team of 70 Austrian athletes, Rogan made his debut on Friday as the country’s flag-holder for the opening ceremonies. (Fencer Mariel Zagunis carried the flag for Team USA’s 529 members.) Though his performance went off without a hitch, Rogan was characteristically self-deprecating about it beforehand. “If I drop the flag, my dear small Alpine republic will get the most attention since Schwarzenegger's 32nd affair,” he joked. “But I would be more embarrassed than Ms. Shriver. The flag-bearer is like the first lady. It’s prominent but people prefer it not to have a message.”
He’s keenly aware that this may be his last shot for glory at the Games. After briefly considering retirement from what he calls the “lonely” sport of swimming after the 2008 Beijing Games, Rogan found himself at the top of a cliff in search of adrenaline. Notably, he missed “the mania” and “all the girls you can get.”
He’s also quick to note, though, how he has changed his Lothario ways after meeting his girlfriend. And as founder of the NGO Tesfaye, which builds schools for children in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Rogan demonstrates he isn’t all bravado. When asked about the diamond mouthpiece Lochte wore to the Golden Goggle Awards, a yearly awards ceremony by the USA Swimming Foundation where Lochte received Male Athlete of the Year from 2009 to 2011, Rogan replied, “I prefer to spend my money on more meaningful things.”