What Would it Mean if Ryan Lochte Made Another Olympic Team?

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Ryan Lochte -- Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

What Would it Mean if Ryan Lochte Made Another Olympic Team?

By any measure, Ryan Lochte is one of the greatest swimmers in history, a part of any reasonable list of the top 10 male performers ever. His already impressive résumé—12 Olympic medals, six of them gold, plus 18 long course world titles—would likely be higher if not for his unfortunate timing of swimming in the same era as Michael Phelps. It didn’t help that at the Olympics, Lochte’s two best events have been scheduled back-to-back throughout his career.

In 2021, Lochte could qualify for his fifth Olympic team, which would match Phelps and Dara Torres for the most of any American swimmer. But despite his sterling credentials and his legacy in the pool, he is far from a favorite to earn a trip to Tokyo. That has nothing to do with Lochte’s well-documented outside-the-pool issues in recent years. Rather, any time Lochte has competed over the past few years, he has been a shell of the swimmer who once captured four straight world titles in one event.

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Ryan Lochte racing at the 2019 U.S. Nationals — Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Even at the 2016 Olympics, Lochte was not the old Lochte. After making the very questionable fashion choice to dye his hair white just before the Games, Lochte swam just two events in Rio, the 800 free relay and 200 IM. He was part of the gold medal-winning 800 free relay squad for the fourth straight Games, but he ended up swimming the slowest of the four U.S. legs after he was a somewhat controversial choice to swim on the finals squad over Olympic rookie Jack Conger.

Two days later, Lochte faded to a surprising fifth in the 200 IM, failing to reach the podium in the event for the first time in four Olympic appearances. He swam more than a second slower than his semifinals time, which would have been good enough for a silver medal.

After that came the infamous Rio gas station incident, when Lochte lied about being robbed at gunpoint. The embarrassment led to a 10-month suspension that ruled him out of the 2017 World Championships.


The Ryan Lochte Roller Coaster

Then, over the next few years, Lochte followed a familiar pattern of returning to competition and insisting he was “back,” spurred on by his two children, Caiden (born 2017) and Liv (2019), only to be derailed repeatedly with more outside-the-pool trouble. Consider this collection of quotes from Lochte:

From 2017 Masters Nationals, when Lochte was still suspended by USA Swimming for the Rio incident: “I’m back. I think I found a new love for the sport. The past four years, my love for the sport kind of drifted away. Now, with my son about to be born, I found a new passion for the sport, and I found it fun again. I guess you could say the old Ryan Lochte is back.”

From the 2018 TYR Pro Swim Series in Santa Clara: “He’s my motivation, my son. I fell out of love for the sport and passion and drive back in 2013. I was just hanging on by a thin string. It wasn’t until my son was born that I finally got that motivation, that fire back inside me.”

From 2019 U.S. Nationals, where Lochte won the 200 IM national title against a depleted field: “It is fun getting on those blocks and racing again, being happy with the sport. I lost that mojo that I had a while ago. Now, I am finally getting that back. I guess I owe it all to my family because I am doing it for them. Just racing, that competitive edge, I lost it. I am slowly getting it back.”

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Ryan Lochte with his coach, Gregg Troy, at the 2019 U.S. Nationals — Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Lochte seemed to really be on track in 2018, when he returned to training in Gainesville, Fla., with Gregg Troy, his old college coach, and he said he was enjoying completing 8000-9000 meter workouts again, even if after one of his first workouts, “I almost had to go to the hospital.” But then, just days prior to Nationals, Lochte was suspended one year by USADA after he posted a photo of himself receiving an illegal intravenous IV infusion. That meant he would miss the selection meet for all international teams prior to the Tokyo Olympics.

And then, in October of 2018, Lochte made news when his lawyer confirmed he was entering rehab for alcohol addiction. When he finally did return to competition at Nationals in 2019, he won the 200 IM in 1:57.76 and then insisted that he actually hadn’t been training all that much as he had been focused on caring for his children but that he would be redoubling his commitment soon after. Beyond that, he seemed to recycle his talking point from the year before about his newfound commitment to the sport.

“I think it is pretty obvious now that I am 100 percent family. They changed my whole life and gave me a new perspective on everything.”

Over that stretch, it became more difficult to take Lochte at his word about his dedication. Taking care of his family’s needs first was absolutely noble and correct, but his multiple outside-the-pool setbacks over the previous year plus the bravado about being able to flip a switch in training seemed dubious.


The Final Push Towards Tokyo

Had the Tokyo Olympics gone off as scheduled in 2020, Lochte would have been 35 during the Games and turned 36 the day after swimming was concluded. In 2021, Lochte will be 36 during Olympic swimming, with his 37th birthday approaching. If he were to qualify for the Olympics, he would be the oldest male swimmer to ever represent the United States. The only other 36-year-old man to swim for the U.S. at the Olympics was Jason Lezak, who was still three months shy of his 37th birthday when he swam one prelims relay at the 2012 Olympics in London.

Already, Lochte is the oldest man to compete in a distance longer than a 100 at the Olympics, from his 2016 Games appearance. Typically, swimmers gravitate away from long, grueling events and towards sprints as they get older, but Lochte never established himself as a dominant force in any 100-meter races. So that meant the old standby events, and in recent years, it’s only been in the 200 IM that Lochte has been able to gain any traction.

Lochte has competed just a handful of times since the COVID pandemic shut down the country in March 2020. On one of those first occasions, at the U.S. Open in November 2020, Lochte told the Associated Press, “This is probably going to go down as the worst meet that I’ve ever had.” He added, “When I get back home, I’m going to start turning it up again,” implying that his training still was not at the level he desired.

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Ryan Lochte after a race at the 2019 U.S. Nationals — Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

In the 200 IM, he has only broken 2:00 once, swimming a 1:59.72 in March. He swam a 2:00.90 in prelims of the event at the Mission Viejo Pro Series meet last week, good for the third-fastest qualifying time, but then he scratched the final.

Meanwhile, Lochte swam a 1:51.68 in the 200 free in Mission Viejo which was just good enough to qualify for the B-final, where he ended up finishing last. He hasn’t broken 1:50 this year, so a run at an 800 free relay berth for the Olympics seems unlikely. So as far as Lochte and Tokyo, it’s 200 IM or bust.

During the Olympic Trials qualifying period, Lochte ranks fifth in the United States in the 200 IM, behind 2017 world champion Chase Kalisz, Michael Andrew, Carson Foster and Abrahm DeVine and tied with Sam Stewart. Those behind Lochte in the rankings include the last two NCAA champions in the short course version of the event, Andrew Seliskar and Shaine Casas.

What does Lochte have in the tank? He’s still the world record-holder at 1:54.00, but any time close to that realm is implausible. Will he be in the 1:55-range by Trials? Possible, but recent results suggest that’s unlikely. 1:56? More reasonable.

Historically, Phelps and Lochte have completely dominated the 200 IM, and the two men combine to hold the 16 fastest performances in history. But the 1:55 range has become much more crowded in recent years. Kalisz has been as quick as 1:55.40 (good for sixth-fastest all-time in the event). Can another man from that crowd of young IMers break through? The powers-that-be in American swimming should hope so: producing just one world-class 200 IM in more than a decade would be a lousy outcome.

Lochte, despite all his issues of the past several years, could still bolster his legacy one more time and qualify for yet another Olympics. He could swim his fastest performance since 2015, maybe break into that 1:55-range and earns himself one last Olympic hurrah. That would be a feat worthy of celebration.

But if Lochte can only manage an effort in the 1:56-high or 1:57-low range and that is sufficient to qualify for Tokyo, that would mean no young swimmer had stepped up and posted a truly Olympic-worthy performance. As magnificent an accomplishment as it would be to see Lochte qualify for his fifth Olympics, such an outcome would represent an unsatisfactory result for the world’s premier swimming nation, if the past-his-prime 36-year-old can defeat America’s rising talent to qualify for Tokyo.

13 comments

  1. avatar
    Anonymous

    I hope he proves you wrong. What horrible negative point of you.

    • avatar
      Anonymous

      What a terribly negative article. I hope Ryan makes his point and you have to eat your words. He has been through a lot, like many athletes who are in the public eye for so long. Good luck, Ryan!

      • avatar
        Amy

        👍🏼👍🏼

  2. avatar
    JimL

    Lochte betrayed his teammates in Rio.

  3. avatar
    Frank

    The first sentence says it all, appreciate his greatness!

  4. avatar
    K

    Think that thesis about him being the GOAT if it wasn’t for Phelps is on a slippery slope. It was Phelps that got the best out of him, and his outstanding results. Would he ever had the stamina to be #1 w/o Phelps, I doubt it. Please prove me wrong at the trials!!

  5. avatar
    John

    Well said, Mr. Rieder!
    To the ‘anonymous’ poster above: Your second sentence is missing ‘a’ and the phrase is ‘point of view.’

  6. avatar
    Derek

    I love hom and wish him all the best. He is the perfect example of a normal human being with super special talents

  7. avatar
    Finn

    This article puts down a man who is working with every ounce of his being to achieve a goal (a lofty one I’ll admit). That’s not right. I hope he proves you wrong.

  8. avatar
    Barry Lewis

    It’s called “analysis”, people. It’s not personal.

  9. avatar
    Sid

    Ryan Lochte was an “ugly American” at the 2016 Rio Olympics, I’m not a fan.

  10. Jay

    We all have flaws. Lochte has made his fair share of mistakes, but I’d sure like to see him qualify. He’s a great athlete, a nice guy and has always been approachable by fans of all ages. I’m a believer and I wish him the best.

  11. avatar
    Rona

    I just watched a documentary about Ryan. What happened in Rio years ago I forgot about and didn’t even know there was fallout for him, more than once. But I found him so personable and sincere that I am now a fan and wish him prayers and luck to go to Tokyo and win another Gold medal. After all, aren’t we human too, who hadnt been guilty of something even worse than a lie? I think he’s a fine young man who is truly sincere and I will be looking forward to seeing him swim and winning another gold medal.♡

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