Gold Medalist to Capitol Insurrection: Tracing the Rise and Fall of Klete Keller

Klete Keller
Klete Keller. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Gold Medalist to Capitol Insurrection: Tracing the Rise and Fall of Klete Keller

There’s no sugarcoating the effect on the world of swimming that seeing Klete Keller’s among protestors storming the United States Capitol on Jan. 6 has had, just as there’s no diminishing the chilling effect of five lives lost that day or that the insurrection has had on American democracy.

It’s made for a convenient hook in headlines of the coverage – of CEOs, elected officials and yes, an Olympic swimmer, joining an unruly mob of right-wing protestors trying to stop the certification of an election lost by twice-impeached American president Donald Trump. To boot, the symbolism of having an Olympic team patch on Keller’s jacket, within the Rotunda of a stormed Capitol, is insult to injury.

Keller faces three federal charges, that carry a possible sentence of up to 15 ½ years. He’s free after having turned himself in to police in Colorado, and he is innocent until proven guilty.

Beyond the easy headline, a famous name taking part in a historically infamous incident, the character at the center of this particular corner of American political controversy warrants rounding out. Keller is a notable athlete, yes, but he’s not an obscure Olympian. He’s a three-time Olympian, owner of five medals, three gold, two individual bronze. He spent more than a decade on high-level American swimming delegations, taking part in some of the sport’s most famous moments.

None of that calls for special treatment in a court of law or perhaps even public opinion. But as people near him have wrestled with how Keller descended into this predicament in his post-swimming life, the context of what he accomplished in the pool – and how it might have shaped his retirement – offer poignant context.

More Klete Keller Coverage

The New Distance Star

The headline about Klete Keller’s big break in swimming had nothing to do with Klete Keller.

Keller was a relative unknown at the 2000 Olympic Trials. He’d just graduated Arcadia High School in his native Phoenix, Arizona, and was set to enroll at USC. At 18, he’d had some success in open-water swimming.

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Klete Keller and Kalyn Keller in 1998; Photo Courtesy: SW Archives

The 2000 Trials marked his arrival, but the news wasn’t even about him. Matt Cetlinski’s American record in the 400 freestyle had stood since 1988 at 3:48.06. Both Keller and the Trials runner-up undercut that mark, Keller taking the record in 3:47.18. But the attention went to Chad Carvin, who qualified for his first Olympics at age 26, after having missed the 1996 Trials with a heart condition.

Keller would undercut the record again at the Olympic Games in Sydney, evening it out at 3:47.00. It earned him bronze, with Carvin sixth.

The 12 years in itself was meaningful, but so was the doldrums that it shook the American distance program from. The 18-year-old wasn’t just a rising star but the brightest prospect in what had once been the bread-and-butter of American swimming, real estate since ceded first to the Eastern bloc, then the Australians.

That Olympic medal was the first for an American male freestyler at a distance of 200 meters or longer since 1988, when Matt Biondi took bronze in the 200. (Cetlinski was fourth in both the 400 free and the 1,500 at those games.) The Americans failed to field a finalist in the 400 free at the Olympics in 1992 (Sean Killion was 11th) and 1996 (John Piersma took ninth). In Barcelona, the Americans even fell to bronze in the 800 free relay.

But Keller was at the leading edge of a distance surge. Josh Davis was fourth in the 200 free in Sydney in 2000. Chris Thompson got bronze in the 1,500 with Eric Vendt sixth. By the 2004 Games, Peter Vanderkaay and Larsen Jensen had emerged.

Not that Keller was done. A gangly 15-year-old at the Sydney Games by the name of Michael Phelps showed he could swim freestyle, too, taking Keller’s American record at the 2003 Nationals. Keller responded a year later by walloping Phelps’s record by 2.5 seconds to 3:44.19 at Trials, then trimmed another eight hundredths for his fourth and final AR at the Olympics. That record would hold for an Olympic cycle until 2008; it remains within 1.5 seconds of Jensen’s enduring super-suit aided mark from 2008 (3:42.78).

That 2004 Games was the pinnacle for Keller. He repeated as the bronze medalist in the 400 free, just a second behind Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett, nearly two seconds quicker than Jensen. He shared the Athens experience with his sister Kalyn Keller, who made the women’s team.

More memorable in the annals of swimming history is the 200 free, dubbed the Race of the Century. World-record holder Thorpe, who Keller likened to “a mythical figure,” Olympic record holder Pieter van den Hoogenband, Hackett, Phelps swimming somewhat out of his expertise as a way to test himself against arguably the best swimmers of his generation … and Keller. In the final tally, Thorpe came out on top, van den Hoogenband second, just .09 ahead of Phelps, with an American record of 1:45.32. Keller was fourth, in 1:46.13, a supporting player in one of the Games’ most compelling scripts.

Keller took an even more central role the following night in the final of the 800 free relay. Everyone know it would amount to a two-horse race between the Americans and Aussies. But the Americans’ masterstroke was assuming that Thorpe would anchor, allowing the U.S. to front-load with Phelps and hope to hang on against Thrope’s final-leg onslaught.

So out went Phelps, to take a second-long lead over Hackett, an edge that Ryan Lochte, then Vanderkaay extended slightly … setting up Keller vs. Thorpe, with gold on the line.

Keller split 1:45.53. Had it been two-tenths slower, Thorpe would’ve overhauled him into gold.

“I thought (Thorpe) would try and be the hero and catch up right away and make me look like a fool,” Keller recalled in a 2014 interview with OlympicTalk. “He did catch up right away. When he did that, I was happy, because I knew he wouldn’t be able to hold it.

“The thing I remember from the last lap was the U.S. team sitting down on the deck that night. The way the seating arrangements worked, they switched countries to different parts of the stands every night. You could be in nosebleeds, but it was really lucky our team was deck level. I could see them going crazy and waving towels and shirts. I had a feeling I would win, but I wasn’t sure until I popped my head out at the very end. It was more of a relief at first than anything.

“I’m just so proud that I got to be a part of history and be involved with one of Phelps’ 22 medals. It has meant different things to me as I’ve gotten older. At first, I felt responsible for winning a gold. In reality, that’s not really what it was. It was all four of us.”

The Struggles of Post-Swimming Life

Even in that 2014 interview, Klete Keller made comments that, in retrospect, read as haunting.

“Being good at an Olympic sport is almost as much a curse as it is a blessing because I kind of got a skewed sense of reality,” Keller said then. “If I was as good at basketball or football as I was at swimming, I wouldn’t have had to worry about that stuff because I would have had lots of money.

“You make just enough swimming to be comfortable, and then you have to get real after (your swimming career ends). In that way you have to have your head on straight.”

Those comments presaged a fall that it would take years for Keller to recover from. But even more devastating to listen to now is a 2018 podcast that Keller did with the Olympic Channel, where it appears that he had returned to stable emotional footing.

Keller’s swimming career didn’t end in 2004, even if he later expressed regret that he didn’t. He geared up for the 2008 Games, where he garnered gold in prelims of the 800 free relay, somewhat stung to be left off the finals squad in favor of Ricky Berens. (Jensen and Vanderkaay qualified for the 400 in Beijing.)

After his swimming career ended, he went through a succession of unsuccessful jobs. He tried his hand at sales and other positions, with no success. He worked for Cantor Fitzgerald in Memphis, Tennessee, in 2013. He stopped working out or taking care of his body, settling into what he would later recognize as a spiraling depression, staying in, drinking more, letting social ties lapse for someone that many recall as a gregarious presence.

“I found the real-world pressure much more intimidating and much more difficult to deal with because I went from swimming to having three kids and a wife within a year,” Keller said on the 2018 podcast. “So the consequences of not succeeding were very, very real, and if I didn’t make a sale or if my manager was ticked off at me or I got fired, aw shoot, you have no health insurance, it’s very concrete and there’s other people that are blood related that are counting on you.

“So I felt, when I failed, a much more acute sense of pain and frustration and failure than I did with swimming. With swimming, it was just me. All those years of success I had with swimming really gave me an inaccurate expectation of the world, so it was all the much harder to cope with the little mini-failures I would face any given day.”

By 2014, back in North Carolina, his marriage had crumbled, leading to his wife and the couple’s three kids leaving. With $10 to his name, his credit cards cut off, he packed up his Ford Focus and drove to Washington, where Kalyn, with whom he’d patched up his relationship, and her husband took him in.

That was only temporary, and as Keller rebuilt his life, he lived out of his car for 10 months. It was in that time that he came to terms with his maladaptive tendencies, his rage at his failures, the distorted perspective that single-minded focus on swimming and a long track record of success at that tunnel-visioned goal had on him. He even went from, in 2014, saying he didn’t care much where his five medals were to traveling with his 2008 relay gold, a meal ticket to show to kids at swim camps, one of his few income sources.

“I went from hating everything and hating the world and everybody in it to getting the total opposite welcoming and love and acceptance,” he said in 2018.

That apparent recovery makes this latest descent all the more perplexing for those around him.

From that nadir, Keller bounced back. In 2017, he moved to Colorado to join a boutique real estate firm. He fashioned himself as “The Olympic Agent,” selling his clients on his “Olympic effort” on their behalf. He’d repaired his relationship with his ex-wife and his kids. He’d gotten engaged again and worked with Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, a moderate Republican who lost his re-election bid in November, on the “Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act of 2020.”

But on social media, accounts that have been deleted, he fell under the spell of the unique brand of viral, conspiracy-theory-cloaked-as-populism peddled by President Trump and his supporters. According to the Washington Post, many of those close to him were not shocked to see Keller’s political leanings culminate in sympathy with a mob storming the Capitol, even if the logistics of traveling from Colorado to Washington to be present remain baffling.

“He was just starting to pull his life back together,” Gary Hall Jr., who trained with Keller at the Race Club and has known him since he was young, told the Post. “He had a job. He got engaged. To see all that implode is just heartbreaking.”

“I thought he was a lost soul when we were at Michigan together,” three-time Olympian Tom Malchow told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Everything was swimming. And, you’re right, you see it all the time. These guys who have just been doing one thing for years and years, and everything they need is done for them, and they are waited on hand and foot for whatever they need.

“Because it’s all about them doing that one thing. Once it’s over, they need to find some way to stay connected to it. I found something like I liked, so when I was done I could move on. But not everyone does it, and it can be very hard.”

He had, it appeared, reeled his life back from the brink and come to terms with reinventing himself after swimming, after a failed marriage, after professional failures. But his role in the Capitol insurrection indicates just how jagged the edges in that recovery remained.

“There’s no limit to how bad things can get,” Keller said in 2018, about what it was like to become homeless and discover there was further to fall. “I learned that. It can always get worse. You really have to be disciplined. You really have to maintain discipline throughout life to stay afloat.”

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