Olympic Days Over? No Problem: Greatness of Ryan Lochte Will be Remembered

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Olympic Days Over? No Problem: Greatness of Ryan Lochte Will be Remembered

At 8:44 p.m. on June 18, Ryan Lochte lifted himself out of the pool at the CHI Health Center in Omaha. His fifth United States Olympic Trials was done. He took a moment to acknowledge the crowd, hugged Chase Kalisz and Michael Andrew and spoke with NBC Sports. Eventually, he walked off the deck, his days as a competitive headliner in the sport behind him.

In a fairytale world, Lochte would have earned one more trip to the Olympic Games, one more opportunity to represent his country on the grandest of athletic stages. Sports does not work that way, though, and the undefeated Father Time tapped Lochte on the shoulder with the same message he has delivered to countless athletes through the years: It’s over.

The last chance for the 36-year-old to qualify for the Olympic Games in Tokyo was the final of the 200-meter individual medley. It is an event in which Lochte is the world-record holder, a four-time world champion and three-time Olympic medalist. But those accolades are from the past. At Trials, Lochte was good enough for seventh place, victory going to Andrew and Kalisz claiming the second invitation. Lochte was never a factor.

To be clear, Lochte didn’t say he was retiring during his post-race press conference. He hedged on his status going forward, repeatedly stating he wanted to change the sport and make it more popular. How? Those details need to be fleshed out.

“I can tell you that I have no pressure on my back anymore,” Lochte said. “I was getting pressure from all different directions, mostly from me, because I wanted to prove so much to everyone. But this isn’t the last you’re going to see of me. Whether it’s in the pool or out of the pool making this sport bigger, I want to make swimming bigger than it is right now… I don’t know if this will be my last race. I don’t think so. It won’t be. There are still things I want to do. But now all the pressure’s off, and it’s going to be fun.”

Maybe Lochte will race in the future, but let’s be honest. In terms of representing the United States on the international stage, those days have passed. He’ll be 39 during the next Olympic Trials, and the physical challenges Lochte experienced in 2021 would only be intensified in 2024.

The Floridian is a polarizing figure in the sport. Many adore him – aside from his skill – for his fun-loving personality and longtime connections with fans. Just as many would not have cared if he disappeared a while back. They will not forgive his drunken escapades, primarily the Rio gas-station incident, or do not see his personality as endearing.

But here’s the thing: Lochte is a legend. One day, he will be enshrined in the International Swimming Hall of Fame. He surely attracted new athletes to the sport. He proved anyone is beatable. And he emanated a sense of joy when he raced and interacted with those who came to see him race. Those attributes, more than any of the follies, should be appreciated.

Credit Lochte for believing, until the end, that he was capable of qualifying for another Olympics. Athens and Beijing were not enough. Neither were London and Rio. He wanted Tokyo on the resume, too. He dedicated himself to his training under longtime coach Gregg Troy, balancing those demands with the family obligations that come with being a husband and father of two.

Even as his tuneup performances lacked pop and suggested his path to Tokyo was a minefield, he pressed on with confidence. It might be argued in some circles that his constant belief in a positive outcome was lip service. Not true. One does not reach the success attained by Lochte without unwavering conviction.

“I really wanted to be on that Olympic team,” Lochte said. “I think this is probably my most important swim meet that I’ve ever had in my entire career, the one that meant the most to me. Falling short and feeling like I let everyone down was one of the hardest things. I had my family there. My kids, they got to watch their daddy swim. I guess, you know what? That means everything to me.”

A silver medal behind Michael Phelps in the 200 medley at the 2004 Olympics in Athens launched Lochte’s international career. The effort jumpstarted years of global excellence, including an initial individual world title in the 200 backstroke in 2007. Yet, Lochte was always a sidekick or an extra in the story of Phelps.

To most of the world, Phelps was out of reach. But Lochte did not adhere to that narrative and set out on a journey to become an equal of his rival. He changed his diet. He was fully invested in his training. He had a mental outlook that ran counter to the prevailing principle that Phelps was unstoppable. Ultimately, Phelps retired with a massive head-to-head advantage in major clashes with Lochte. But Lochte topped his countryman in the 200 freestyle and 200 medley at the 2011 World Championships, and won gold in the 400 I.M. at the 2012 Olympics, where Phelps was fourth and off the podium.

If nothing else, Lochte was an inspiration, a human cliché for beating the unbeatable, following dreams or hard work coming to fruition. Pick your favorite option. He was also a guy USA Swimming knew would fill seats – whether at the Olympic Trials, Nationals or Pro Series stops. Lochte recognized his role as an ambassador, best exemplified by posing for photos with fans or tossing a medal or other souvenir to a child in the stands.

Obviously, we cannot overlook his faults and the stumbles that will always be associated with his name. When he lied about being held up at a Rio gas station following the last night of swimming action in 2016, he embarrassed himself, USA Swimming and his nation. He incurred a suspension of 10 months. His TV show on the E! Network was a disaster, nothing more than eight episodes of drunken stupidity. And when he received a 14-month doping suspension in 2018 for receiving an IV infusion of a legal substance, his lack of attention to the rules prompted a reaction of: “Really, Ryan?”

At a time when USA Swimming is in transition, Phelps’ 2016 retirement now followed by the last days of veteran Matt Grevers and the aging of Nathan Adrian, too, the influence Lochte has had on the sport for nearly two decades outweighs his indiscretions. His 12 Olympic medals, a total bettered by only Phelps, should be appreciated. So should his influence on drawing youth into the pool. Kids thought Lochte was cool, so they joined a team. That connection is a plus.

Defining the success of Ryan Lochte can be achieved in several short words and phrases. Olympic champ. World titlist. World-record holder. Clutch performer. Desire. Belief.

And while time ran out on his latest Olympic pursuit, the memories he created and impact he had will not fade.

16 comments

  1. Anna Litkenhous Merritt

    He’s not my favorite person ever but I was really rooting for him. What a talent and what guts it took to come back. All the best to him and his family!

  2. avatar
    Anonymous

    Ryan Lochte should continue swimming as long as he wants to. If he only wants to swim if he wins, then that’s his business. If he wants to swim as long as he enjoys competition, that’s also his choice. I applaud him For giving his all and enjoying the process. Long swim Ryan Lochte!

  3. avatar
    Marcie

    I will never forget that he signed autographs for everyone who wanted one in Indianapolis. He may have his faults but he achieved success that only a few will ever accomplish. All the best to him and his family.

  4. avatar
    Kathleen L. Riley

    I’m sorry he did not make the cut. He was so determined to beat the odds. Everyone has missteps in life and Ryan has more than made us for his and should be proud of his accomplishments. I wish the best to him and his family in the future. I know there will be great things ahead in his next chapter.

  5. Jim Bowser

    On the other hand all bathrooms in the Olympics area are now safe.?
    Thanks Ryan for the great accomplishments you helped the USA to obtain.

  6. Jenny Haemmerle

    I was rooting for Lochte. He was in Phelps shadows and such amazing competitor that helped changed the sport. Folks want to point to Lochte mistakes, but don’t forget Phelps did too. They’re human, all people make mistakes and they learned, matured and dedicated to being the best.

  7. avatar
    Bill I

    What an incredibly misguided story. Lochte has had his deservedmoments of fame and has mishandled it repeatedly—even after his most recent story of personal redemption, marriage and fatherhood, he had more personal issues. Maybe out of the spotlight he can pull his life together and I hope he does. But there are lots of swimmers who have worked hard, haven’t made the mistakes that Lochte has along the way and are never going to achieve “fairytale” success. 7th at Trials is a good swim but Lochte’s need for attention(and effort to reset his brand) meant some other swimmers did not get their “fairytale”.

    • avatar
      Coach

      Really? Anyone who wants to should be able to compete if they r willing to train and achieve the difficult time standard. He earned his spot. It was not just given to him!!!

    • avatar
      Greg Laios

      The only thing misguided is your reply. Lochte is and always will be a LEGEND in the sport of swimming. If not for being in the same era as Phelps that legendary status would be even greater. I’ve personally seen the hours of time and money he’s given back to young swimmers and his Love of the sport. I’m from his hometown and watched him grow up. His actions in Rio were wrong as was his account. Brazil was ridiculously unfair and criminal themselves. Lochte stands as a top Olympic medalist number 12 of all Olympians. He was a goofy kid with a bigger heart than most anyone I’ve ever met.

  8. avatar
    Isabelle Fraser

    Ryan you are a champion and it should make you proud. Wish you great success in whatever you decide to do. Enjoy those children of yours.

  9. avatar
    Ines

    Never rule anyone out. If he has further ambitions, you have no right to already shut the door on him. I hope he proves you wrong, and I’m not even much of a fan.

    Abdi Abdirahman competed at the Sydney, Athens, Beijing, and London games but failed to make the 2016 Rio team at the age of … 39. Cut to 5 years later, next month he is going to Tokyo as a fifth-time Olympian, at age 44, and as the oldest runner in history to ever do so!

  10. avatar
    Karen

    Ryan, you have nothing to prove to anyone. You are a very memorable special Great Olympian and for that we thank you and will Always have the memories. You have proved yourself in the pool
    Which is where it counts. Your missteps in Rio were so to the hype and immaturity and burden of the role you were dealing with. That’s I. The past and we all know it was stupid and you have paid the price. You have place some much pressure to prove you are worthy. You Sir are truly worthy of all the praise and glory. Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s past. Enjoy your family and live your life. We will miss you in the pool but you have so much to offer outside the pool.

  11. Henrique Font

    His impact was definitely felt on a Rio de Janeiro gas station

  12. avatar
    Sandy Thatcher

    I look forward to Lochte and Phelps battling for first in the USMS 100-104 age group!

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