Why is 33-Year-Old Ryan Lochte Still Swimming?

Photo Courtesy: JD Lasica

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Morning Splash by David Rieder.

There was a time when Ryan Lochte was the undisputed No. 1 swimmer in the world—in 2011, for instance, when the then-26-year-old won four individual golds at the Shanghai World Championships. One year later, he stormed to Olympic gold in the 400 IM in London, arguably the signature race of his career.

Now, Lochte is 33, and he hasn’t been anything close to a dominant swimmer in almost five years.

His low point undoubtedly certainly in Rio, when his fourth Olympics culminated with the infamous gas station fiasco now simply known as “Lochtegate.” Before that, Lochte had not been swimming particularly fast in Rio—he won gold as part of the U.S. men’s 4×200 free relay but finished fifth in his only individual event, the 200 IM.

Never before had Lochte failed to win an individual medal at an international meet, but there had been a pattern of slippage in his swimming dating back to well before 2016. One year earlier, at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Lochte won just a single individual medal. It was gold in the 200 IM, his record-tying fourth straight in the event, but it came with an asterisk—his two biggest competitors, Kosuke Hagino and Michael Phelps, were absent.

Ah, yes, Phelps. He’s a primary character in this or any story about Lochte—the main antagonist, perhaps. Lochte spent six years chasing Phelps before he finally began scoring victories over the greatest-of-all-time in 2010, turning their previously one-sided competition into something of a rivalry. But only one of those two—Phelps, not Lochte—consistently put up his best swims when it counted most at the Olympics.

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Lochte and Phelps — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The hyped-up final 200 IM showdown between Phelps and Lochte in Rio turned into a complete washout, with gold medalist Phelps finishing almost three seconds ahead of his compatriot. In the pool, Lochte was a 32-year-old all-time great fading into obscurity. Out of it, he soon became a pariah, banished from the pool deck for 10 months by USA Swimming.

In the following year, Lochte made just two cameo appearances in a competitive event, at U.S. Masters Nationals in late April (before his USA Swimming suspension had expired) and at the U.S. Open in New York in early August. On both occasions, his performances were mediocre, at best.

After that, Lochte announced he was returning to Gainesville, Fla., to resume training under the man who coached him for the majority of his career, Gregg Troy. Lochte left the University of Florida in 2013 after 11 years, looking for a change of pace from Troy’s high-volume training. But after his career downturn, he wanted to return to the program that produced his most successful years.

“I talked to Troy, and I said, ‘If I want to do this, if I want to do everything right, I have to go back,’” Lochte said. “I have to go back to where it started. I have to go back to doing those 8000, 9000-meter practices on a daily basis. I need that. I need to go back to how I used to train.”

Sounds like a man looking at his last hope for recapturing his glory years. Very few 33-year-old swimmers seek out training programs like that. Typically, when a swimmer is still active at that age, they opt for less yardage and fewer practices. Not Lochte.

Indeed, after Lochte’s first practice of more than 8000 meters with Troy, “I almost had to go to the hospital. I was crawling out of the pool.”

Speaking of swimmers in their 30s, most don’t swim the events Lochte does. Only two men older than 32 have qualified for a senior U.S. national team in recent memory: Jason Lezak and Anthony Ervin. Those two exclusively raced the 50 and 100 free, while Lochte is still aiming for the 200 free, 200 back, 200 IM and, yes, even the 400 IM.

Unlike Phelps, who was a three-time Olympic gold medalist in the 100 fly and a very capable 100 freestyler, Lochte never mastered the 100-meter distance. So that meant that if a post-2016 comeback was in the works, he would have go back to the same events he’s been cutting his teeth in for the past decade.

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Lochte kept a low profile during his initial months at Florida, racing only at a Sectionals meet in Florida in March. But in May, he jumped into a three-meets-in-four-weeks stretch that included the Atlanta Classic, the Mel Zajac International and now the TYR Pro Swim Series in Santa Clara.

Before that stretch began, Lochte told NBC Sports that after slacking through his training during the spring and summer of 2017, his motivation for swimming reappeared when he first held his newborn son, Caiden, last June. “I have a different purpose for swimming. I’m hungry again,” Lochte said.

Lochte has made such proclamations about being back before—at Masters Nationals last April, for instance, Lochte said that he had returned to full-time training “a month, a month-and-a-half ago,” which would have meant sometime in March. “I guess you could say the old Ryan Lochte is back,” he said. He later admitted that he was training sparingly at that point.

Maybe this time when he says he’s back, he means it? The evidence for that: The clock does not lie.

When Lochte put on a racing suit for finals at the Mel Zajac meet in Vancouver, he put up respectable times—a first for him post-Rio. Among them, a 4:15.80 in the 400 IM and 1:58.90 in the 200 IM, both placing him among the top-20 performers in the world this year and in the No. 2 spot among Americans behind reigning World champion Chase Kalisz. He also managed to win the 100 back in 54.75.

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Lochte and Murphy in Santa Clara — Photo Courtesy: JD Lasica

The following week in Santa Clara, Lochte “got my butt kicked” in the 200 back when he finished more than four seconds behind winner and Olympic gold medalist Ryan Murphy in the 200 back in 2:00.82. A day later, Lochte finished second behind Kalisz in the 200 IM in 1:59.42.

Some fine performances mixed in there, but Lochte didn’t decide to come back, to invest three years of his life in training to throw down some solid times in early June. He stated the Olympics as a primary goal and before that, qualifying to represent the U.S. at the Pan Pacific Championships this year and the World Championships next year.

But why? Why, at 33 years old, do this? Because he loves swimming? Because he wants to add more medals to his résumé? Because he feels like he has unfinished business after the Rio debacles in the pool and at the gas station? Because he has nothing better to do?

Because, Lochte reiterated, of Caiden.

“There’s goals I wanted to accomplish in the sport of swimming. I knew if I stopped, I would never accomplish those goals, and I didn’t want to show that to my son,” Lochte said. “I want to teach him that if you do have a dream and a goal and you work at it on a daily basis, you could achieve it.”

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If Lochte had retired after Rio, he would have been considered one of the top ten male swimmers in history. The gas station incident would have faded from memory over time. Heck, even if he stopped after 2012, he still would have still easily qualified for the all-time top ten.

So what is there to be gained from a legacy perspective as Lochte continues to swim? Catching up to the likes of Phelps or Mark Spitz? Not terribly likely.

What would Lochte have to do to positively supplement his legacy? Winning individual gold in Tokyo would certainly suffice. How about winning a World title in 2019 or simply making the Olympic team? Maybe, but Lochte already has qualified for four Olympic teams and wracked up nine individual World titles.

How about if the comeback flops and Lochte never gets back on the U.S. team or perhaps only gets to Tokyo as a relay alternate? Perhaps his legacy would suffer if our final memory of Lochte is of a diminished swimmer lagging behind men a decade his junior, just fighting to keep his seat at the table.

But Lochte insists that he will accept the results of his comeback, whatever they may be.

“I’m having way more fun than I ever have, even though I’m getting my butt kicked by a bunch of little kids,” Lochte said. “100 percent I’ll be okay with it as long as I know that I gave it everything I had, and that’s all I can ask for.”

42 Comments

42 comments

  1. Andrew Webber

    Isn’t that the wrong question though? Why do people think swimmers are done in their early 20s? Beats me

  2. Michele Diehl

    If everyone remembers Michael Phelps had his bumps in the road and he came back and overcame to find peace within himself and of course success. It sounds like Ryan is looking for his peace. I hope he finds what he’s looking for and his own success

  3. Don Mac

    Because he can.

  4. avatar
    Kristiina

    Article head signature is very bad.. Ryan want back of top and compete 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Phelps made is come back also in thirtys. One swimmer won Olympic medal in fourtys: Dara Torres. Ervin also still swimming.. Lezak was 36 in London 2012 olympics.

    • avatar
      Kristiina

      Lochte won 2016 Olympic forth man Hiromasa Fujimori in 200IM Santa Clara. This is good. Kalisz is fastest but he was not year off and he is ten years younger.

  5. avatar
    Duffy Dillon

    Ryan is one of the true gentlemen, ambassadors, and fan favorites of our sport. My hope is that Rio will be an unfortunate blip on an otherwise amazing career and will eventually finally fade away. The 1000s of hours he has spent making fans happy doing signings; always long after the scheduled time to make sure every fan got an autograph and a picture. All of the good charity work has done for several causes. The guy rarely says no to anyone in need. He did his time for his mistake and it’s now our time to let him put it in his past and cheer for him. I know I have.

  6. Richard Willmore

    Age is no limit, 50 is the new 40. Those 50 somethings are killing it in endurance sports….

    • Tammy Lee

      Exactly! I read a 94 year old man just set a Masters record recently.

  7. Vic Stawik

    Because we like to watch him. Because he loves it. Go Lochte. Keep it up!

  8. avatar
    Kristiina

    Ryan Lochte beat of Hiromasa Fujimori at age nearly 34. Fujimori finised in fourth place 200IM in Rio 2016 Olympics.

    • avatar
      Cate

      Huh? Lochte is 33, Fujimori is 26. Lochte placed 5th in Rio, Fujimori 4th. Lochte SHOULD be beating Fujimori so not sure what your point is.

  9. Francisca Alencar

    He is not good in swimming; he is excellent in lying 🤥! And a lier he will forever be.

    • avatar
      Cate

      He’s a 12 time Olympic medalist, so he’s obviously good at swimming.

  10. Amy Lynn

    Glad he is still swimming. Definitely a fan favorite. He is always kind and attentive to the young swimmers who look up to him.

  11. Ja Bounce

    The Oldest Masters swimmer I met was 105 & he looked better than most folks in their 70’s!!! #JustKeepSwimming

  12. Diana Rugg

    Because that’s how he earns his living and supports his family. We need to quit thinking swimmers are done at 28. Other pro sports play well into their 30s if they can, and Tom Brady is 40. Give Ryan a chance to make a comeback now that he’s back with Coach Troy.

  13. Marcelo Castro

    Because he doen’t know any other way to earn $ for his family

  14. Jim Bowser

    Redemption is good for the soul. Ryan has a lot to make up for but probably can not make it up. Like partying the night before a Olympic relay and losing a lead by being run down. And, lying to the world about vandalism was a incredible videoed mistake. What a burden to carry! That being said, I hope he helps a current crew of swimmers and divers to top performances.

  15. Tony Trefoil

    You can still swim competitively well into midlife and senior years. There’s more to it than just the Olympics. We need more #usms around!

  16. Brian Battensby

    There are no expiry dates on swimmers! Masters competitions next for him.

  17. avatar
    Cristabel Alvis

    I think you’re writing in this article talks negatively about him. You devoted 80% of it outlining his “bad” moments. Why are you questioning his desire to swim regardless of the reason. Please be careful in your expressions towards our athletes. You should be praising his presence in the sport. No need to imply there’s a hidden reason for him to try hard at 33.

    • avatar
      Cate

      Because that’s what this article was about, that’s why, his desire to keep swimming in spite of his performances. Be careful? Why? The last time I checked athletes were not Gods

  18. Kenneth Chan

    He hasn’t been the same since that fan accidentally snapped his ACL

  19. Paul Tetuan

    He’s good enough to get paid to swim.

  20. avatar
    Cate Garrison

    There could be three reasons, based on how cynical you are:

    1.) He really believes he can make another national team and win more medals.

    2.) He knows that’s the way he has to make a living. He needs the health insurance and sponsorships. As long as he is an active competitor doing decently he will continue to get sponsors. Rio and a suspension can’t be the last thing that people remember to get that back for a future income stream after he leaves the sport.

    3.) He doesn’t have anything else to do or anything else he’s interested in. That was Phelps problem after 2012. He was supposedly interested in fashion and acting, but didn’t seem to understand that those occupations do have a learning curve.

    4.) He loves the lifestyle. If that’s true, why NOT keep going? When Tom Brady was asked when he was going to retire, his response was, “when I suck”. Good for you Tom. If Lochte is the one who puts people in the seats, swimming had better hope he doesn’t quit. Phelps seems to have left a little bit of an attendance vacuum with his retirement.

    IMO the answer is #3, but I’m probably wrong.

    • avatar
      Cate Garrison

      Oops, this was 4 reasons……..

  21. avatar

    Perhaps having a child has made him grow up , put the bad boy behavior aside and be a mature adult ready to leave nothing but a clean reputation and legacy and life for his family. Everyone deserves a chance, first, second even third to be the best that they can be as an athelete, as a father, as a human being…and who are we to judge?

  22. avatar

    A swimmer his age needs to train with Dave Salo not Troy

  23. avatar
    David Guthrie

    IMO, I don’t think Lochte, or any veteran (30+) swimmer, can be successful going back to the high volume kind of training they did in their early twenties, certainly not without some major changes in their recovery cycles. We’ve seen many veterans struggle, especially in their OT performances, because they ramped up their training intensity, but didn’t account for the additional rest that their aging bodies require. Consider Natalie at Trials. She worked her butt off and swam lights out during the season, but was tired and couldn’t bounce back when she needed to be fresh. I believe MP was in fantastic shape for Rio, but just didn’t rest enough to reach his WR potential there. Adrian and Irvin have the work/recovery formula figured out.

Author: David Rieder

avatar
David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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