As a long-time swim fan, I have watched Ryan Lochte’s career unfold in and out of the pool, as he made a name for himself in the sport of swimming. As a 12-time Olympic medalist, he is widely regarded as one of the greatest swimmers of all-time, second to Michael Phelps who won a total of 28 Olympic medals. If it were not for Lochte’s friend and teammate Phelps, who swam many of the same events, Lochte would have almost certainly won more medals over the span of his career and may well have become the most decorated Olympian in swimming history. Now in the twilight of his professional career, Lochte made one last bid for a spot on the USA swimming Olympic team but fell short, placing seventh in his signature event, the 200 meter individual medley (one length of the 50 meter pool in each stroke: butterfly, backstroke, breastroke, and freestyle).
I was moved by Lochte’s emotional reflection during the 12-minute press conference following the end of his trials journey. He revealed both his disappointment in his performance and his gratitude to the sport that has defined so much of his life. One might think that given his career strewn with accolades, Lochte would have nothing left to prove in the pool. However, his attempt to make his fifth and final Olympic team represented much more than a chance to compete. For Lochte, making the Tokyo Olympic team would have been his chance for redemption, a rewrite of how he ended the 2016 Olympics in Rio and his mistakes that ensued.
Following a late-night excursion in Rio, Lochte and three of his USA swimming teammates damaged property at a gas station in Rio and fabricated a story about being robbed at gunpoint. The event would have Lochte suspended from USA swimming for 10 months, also losing his endorsement deals. About a year after his first suspension, Lochte was suspended for another 14 months from USA swimming for a doping rule violation after a social media post showed him taking a legal substance (vitamin B12) in an illegal way (by IV infusion).
Many people were only too happy to tear Lochte down after his second display of poor judgement. Call me a sucker for redemption, but I really wanted our last memory of Ryan on the Olympic stage to be a positive one. It’s easy to poke fun at Ryan, but having seen him in person at countless swim meets, including those before his breakout performances, I can attest to what others have since documented: he was always the fan favorite because of how he gave so much of himself to fans, especially the youngest of them. I watched him, only moments before a race, stop to pose with a kid who wanted a picture. No game face, just a light-hearted kid face. Lochte has grown and matured in the years since his aforementioned mishaps and has expressed how much he wants to continue as a steward for the sport of swimming. I was disappointed for Lochte that his expression of personal growth could not culminate in making another Olympic team but by the same token, perhaps Lochte’s past mistakes and failure to meet his Olympic team goal is what has stoked the fires of the gritty competitor who is known for leaving it all in the pool, whether it be during swim practice or on the international competition stage. I agree with this commentary, which aptly suggests that the next chapter waiting for Lochte may very well be more fulfilling than the one he is on the verge of finishing as a competitor. With his attention turned to representing the sport outside of the pool rather than striving to be a top competitor in the pool, Lochte now has the opportunity to make more of a mark on society at large. Accordingly, although Lochte will not be in the pool during the men’s preliminary heats of the 200 IM on Wednesday July 28 in Tokyo, he has wasted no time acting on his stated goal to grow the sport of swimming around the world. Days after the trials, he announced his partnership with The Global Swim Series, an organization that offers competitive, adventurous race experiences for swimmers of all ages and abilities. He will compete in the first “Race The Legends” event, held in Egypt in late 2021. Suffice it to say this is not the last we will see Lochte in or out of the water.