You could say Ryan Lochte‘s comeback to competitive swimming begins in earnest on Friday, when he plans to race the 100m butterfly, 200m freestyle and 400m individual medley at the Atlanta Classic.
It is Lochte’s lone day of action at the three-day meet (he said he has a charity event Saturday), but it is the first of three meets in four weeks for the 33-year-old, 12-time Olympic medalist.
The finale is a Tyr Pro Swim Series stop in Santa Clara, Calif., which will mark Lochte’s first meet on USA Swimming’s domestic tour since the infamy of the Rio Olympics and resulting 10-month suspension. He has competed in smaller meets since last April.
It’s all in preparation for July’s national championships, a meet that will largely determine the U.S. roster for the 2019 World Championships. If Lochte, the most decorated active Olympian in any sport, does not perform well at nationals, he will fail to qualify for worlds for the first time in 16 years (not counting last year’s ban).
“It is very important,” Lochte said by phone Tuesday. “I definitely want to be back on the USA team and competing against the fastest athletes in the world.”
That said, Lochte stressed what his coach, Gregg Troy, told him when Lochte relocated from Southern California to Gainesville, Fla., last fall.
It’s going to be hell, said the 67-year-old whom pupils call Papi. It’s not going to be a quick fix, but trust the process, and you’ll be fine.
Under Troy’s guidance from 2002-2013, Lochte rose from a team joker to the world’s best all-around swimmer (but never shedding that personality). Lochte surprisingly left Troy in 2013. He said he needed a change of environment.
Lochte faded the next four years as he entered his 30s, set back by injuries while trying different training techniques (but not always giving it his all). He bottomed out by making the Rio Olympic team in just one individual event, injured at trials, and finished fifth in Brazil. Then came that gas-station incident. Lochte went about eight months without training during the ban — including a “Dancing with the Stars” stint — and another four last spring and summer without real dedication.
“I trained for a day or two, then take a week off,” he said. “I was in California, just enjoying the California sun. I was like, man, if I really want to do something in the sport, I’ve got to go back to where it started.”
Lochte asked Troy to take him back.
“I know I messed up,” Lochte said. “I know I kind of took, like, six years off since 2012, really. I want to go back, and I really want to give it everything I have for the next couple of years. I have a different purpose for swimming. I’m hungry again. I want to come back and train where I started swimming.
“[Troy] said, yes, we would love to have you. You’re great for the program. You train hard. Just know that I’m not going to let up on you. It’s going to be hard. Now that you’re way older than you were before, your recovery, everything, you’re just going to have to start taking care of your body. No more partying.”
All that sounded fine to Lochte. His motivation had crescendoed June 8, holding son Caiden for the first time. Lochte remembers staring at him.
“I want to show him about dedication, hard work and commitment,” said Lochte, who married Kayla Rae Reid in a small January ceremony but plans a larger September wedding.
There is little time for partying. Lochte recently put up for sale a chunk of his well-known shoe collection of more than 130 pairs.
“[My wife said] get these out of there,” Lochte said of their new home in Gainesville, in a subdivision with “doctors and professors” off campus. “We don’t need them. You don’t wear them. They just sit in a box.”
Lochte is down to one sponsor — Tyr, a swimwear company.
Even being back with Troy, with a fresh mindset and extra closet space, Lochte faces a tougher climb than he when he moved from Daytona Beach and enrolled at UF in 2002.
Few make national teams at this age. Lochte, who is a year older than Michael Phelps, will turn 36 during the Tokyo Olympics, making him older than all but two previous U.S. Olympic swimmers in individual events (Edgar Adams, 1904, and Dara Torres, 2008).
Then there is his concerning injury history, a mountain of stories that just seem to fit Lochte. A torn MCL and sprained ACL when a female fan ran toward him, he caught her and fell onto a curb. An MCL strain reaching for his cellphone in the backseat of his car. A torn meniscus from breakdancing in his apartment. A concussion from playing manhunt and falling out of a tree. A hairline fracture in his right foot after losing control of his scooter, flying 47 feet and landing in bushes. Lochte came back every time to win at least one individual gold medal at every Olympics and worlds between 2007 and 2015.
The latest setback came in early November. Lochte posted a Snapchat selfie of him frowning and the text, “Up next….. MRI.”
Soon after moving back to Gainesville, Lochte overstrided in a weight-room sprint and completely tore his right hamstring. He wasn’t able to do a full-on dive off starting blocks until a month ago, though he did race at small meets in Florida in March.
“I guess you could say I’m a 33-year-old that feels like he’s turning 100,” Lochte said. “I’m all beat up, especially the practices that we’ve had earlier this week already.”
Lochte has few pieces of Olympic memorabilia in the open at his new house. They’re all in the movie room — four framed flags signed by every member of the U.S. swim team at his Olympics, starting in 2004.
His 12 medals are all in a sock drawer, including one relay gold from Rio. He said that medal conjures no memories of an Olympics you would think he would like to forget. He said he thinks of it the same way he does the other 11 — not very often.
“I can’t always think about the past,” he said, “or else I’ll never get to where I want to be in the future.”
On March 9, Lochte drove 20 minutes from a small South Florida swim meet to Parkland. He had asked Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School swim and water polo coaches if he could meet the boys and girls teams, three weeks after 17 people were killed in a shooting at the school.
Lochte learned about Nicholas Dworet, one of the 14 students killed, who had been a captain of the swim team. Lochte met Dworet’s parents and saw this piece of paper. Dworet had written down a goal to make the 2020 Olympic team for Sweden. Lochte decided then to dedicate his own 2020 Olympic swims to Dworet, should he defy convention and make it to a fifth Games.
Every day, Lochte wakes in Gainesville, which evokes memories of his best swimming and reminders of how much his life has changed since he previously called it home. Lochte makes his way out of his house to swim on campus. He passes a Marjory Stoneman Douglas swim team cap that he positioned to see daily.
Lochte said Troy’s refrain in practice is “trust the process.” Nationals, the meet that determines his fate in 2019, is in 10 weeks. The Olympics are in two years.
“I’m definitely the underdog, been out of the sport for a long time,” he said. “I’m just trying to get back into it.”
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Today I had one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I'm in Plantation, Florida this weekend swimming in a meet. In between events, I took the 20 minute trip to Parkland for an unannounced visit to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. With the help of Assistant Athletic Director and Swim Coach Lauren Rubenstein, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak to and meet with the swim and water polo teams. I also had the privilege and honor of meeting the parents of Nicholas Dworet. Nicholas was the Swim Captain at MSD and he tragically lost his life along with 16 others during the senseless high school shooting. Words cannot describe the emotions that I felt while at the school and how grateful I am that I was able to meet with those incredible students. In honor of Nicholas, I committed to his parents that I would swim on his behalf tonight and I did. I proudly wore an MSD cap and won for Nicholas and the entire Parkland community. I also told his parents that I will dedicate my swims in the 2020 Olympics to Nicholas. One of his goals was to swim in the Olympics and now he will with me!! #msdstrong #parkland #marjorystonemandouglas #broward #17 #swimming #swim4nick #neveragain #neverforget #olympics #japan2020 @tyrsport #teamtyr