Ryan Lochte is swimming his fewest individual events at major international meet in 11 years at the World Championships in Kazan, Russia, in a little more than two weeks.
He’s coming off what he called probably the worst year of his career, which followed the worst injury of his career in November 2013 and retirement thoughts.
Yet Lochte is once again front and center.
Michael Phelps is suspended from Worlds. The biggest stars from Australia (James Magnussen), France (Yannick Agnel), Japan (Kosuke Hagino) and South Korea (Park Tae-hwan) will also be absent.
Qualifying for Worlds took place last year for U.S. swimmers.
Lochte made the Worlds team in two events — the 200m individual medley and the 200m freestyle — after winning a single individual medal at the year’s major international meet, the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia in August. It marked the first time he failed to win multiple individual medals at an Olympics, Worlds or Pan Pacs since his major international meet debut at the Athens 2004 Olympics.
For all that, Lochte blamed himself.
“I wasn’t in the shape that I wanted to be in,” Lochte said recently. “I had injuries and everything. … I wasn’t training as hard as I should have. My focus wasn’t there. We’re going to throw 2014 out. That year is gone.”
He undoubtedly came back too early by swimming in a February 2014 meet three months after tearing an MCL (via what Lochte has said was an overzealous fan running into him and him falling and hitting a curb). The knee hurt then, and it hurt even more two months later when he re-tore it.
Lochte added Thursday, “I should have stuck with rehab a little bit better. I should have took care of myself outside of the pool.”
With coach David Marsh, whom Lochte calls a “mad scientist,” the 11-time Olympic medalist has experimented. Lochte, who has said he’s eaten pizza and wings every Friday since he was 8, started a new technique off turns around early July, when he rolled onto his back while kicking under water en route to freestyle legs.
“I’m becoming my normal self again,” he said.
He still must prove it. Lochte ranks in the world top 20 in one individual event this year, the 200m IM. Four years ago, Lochte swooped four individual gold medals at the World Championships and became the man to beat — rather than Phelps — going into the London Olympics.
This year, he will benefit greatly from the absence of Phelps, Hagino, Agnel and Park at Worlds.
Lochte is the three-time defending World champion in the 200m IM. In Kazan, he won’t have to face the three-time reigning Olympic champion Phelps nor Hagino, the man who beat both Phelps and Lochte at Pan Pacs last year.
Lochte won gold in the 200m free at the 2011 Worlds and was fourth in the event at the 2012 Olympics and 2013 Worlds. In Kazan, he won’t have to face the 2008 Olympic champion Phelps nor Agnel and Park, who won gold and silver at the 2012 Olympics.
Lochte refused to acknowledge that winning those two events, his only two individual events, at Worlds would mean less without stars in the lanes next to him.
“There’s so many other swimmers out there that are up and coming,” Lochte said. “I’m not always really focused on, ‘Oh well Michael’s not there or Hagino, I can easily win.’ … Just because they’re not there doesn’t mean it should be a shoo-in for me.”
One thing’s for certain. Lochte will have more free time at Worlds than he’s used to at major meets. He swam four individual events each at his busiest at the 2011 Worlds and 2012 Olympics.
“I don’t know if it makes it a little easier [swimming fewer events], just because I’ve always been that swimmer that loves racing,” Lochte said. “The more races I do, the better I am.”
He may return to a loaded schedule next year. Lochte has made it a habit of not revealing his goals (a Phelps habit, too) but said recently that swimming the grueling 400m individual medley was “not out of the question” at the 2016 Olympic trials.