Getty Images

Ryan Lochte’s comeback motivated by new life, another swimmer’s goal

Leave a comment

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.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Dana Vollmer, ‘Momma on a Mission,’ challenged in second comeback

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

A post shared by Ryanlochte (@ryanlochte) on

Allyson Felix withdraws from Prefontaine Classic

AP
Leave a comment

Allyson Felix withdrew on the eve of the Prefontaine Classic and will miss Saturday’s anticipated 400m showdown with Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo and world champion Phyllis Francis.

No reason was given by the meet director at a Friday press conference, according to media in Eugene, Ore.

Felix, a nine-time Olympic medalist and 16-time world outdoor championships medalist, was scheduled to race on the top international level for the first time since Aug. 20. She has raced in smaller meets this season, most recently last Friday.

This is the one year in the four-year cycle without an Olympics or world outdoor championships, making the Diamond League, and the Pre Classic in particular, marquee meets.

“In the 19 years that I’ve been running track, I’ve never taken a break,” the 32-year-old Felix said in an Instagram video Thursday after an intense training session but before her name was taken off Saturday’s start list. “Never had a year where I took it easy. … Now that this is kind of a year without a championship, I’ve had to force myself to have a different approach because my goal is 2020. … To be able to be at my best when it counts, I think that means not having as intense of a year as I usually do. Being a competitor and an athlete, that’s something that I struggle with. … This year, that’s what I’m really trying to force myself to do is have quality races, quality over quantity. … So, if you guys don’t see me at as many of the races as I usually run, don’t worry, I’m fine, I’m just challenging myself to be smarter.”

Felix will miss the Pre Classic for the second time in the last nine years. She was absent in 2016 with an ankle injury.

The USATF Outdoor Championships are in one month.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

PRE CLASSIC: Full TV Schedule | Preview | Start Lists

Will Japan’s Olympic legend return for Tokyo 2020?

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NEW YORK — The Tokyo Olympics are in 790 days. Will Japan’s most dominant Olympian compete?

“She hasn’t decided yet,” a translator said beside wrestler Kaori Icho, who stood in street clothes, some given to her by an American host family, matside at the annual Beat the Streets meet on the edge of the East River on Manhattan last week.

Icho, who turns 34 on June 13, is the only woman to earn an individual gold medal at four Olympics. She has not wrestled in competition since capturing that fourth title in Rio. She has not announced retirement, either.

Icho once held a 13-year winning streak on the mat and owns 10 world championships.

While in New York, Icho did a high school clinic in Brooklyn (one wonders if the students knew they were learning from the greatest of all time), met Olympic and world champion Kyle Snyder (a particular highlight of this trip) and trained with Helen Maroulis before attending the meet as a spectator. In Rio, Maroulis became the first American woman to win an Olympic wrestling title.

Maroulis is familiar with Icho. In 2012, they trained together and drove to a Drake concert in Colorado. They met again in 2014. But last week was different. The most intense training they’ve shared. Their first full practice, said Maroulis, recently cleared from a January concussion.

“I think she’s coming back,” Maroulis said with confidence. Here’s why: “[Icho] busted out the video camera,” Maroulis went on. “Like, hey, can I record practice?

“She feels good. She’s still got it. She’s smaller than she was, obviously, right at the Olympics. She’s amazing. There’s so much to learn from her.”

Icho said through the translator that if she does come back, she would start in the next year rather than leaving it a few months before the Tokyo Games.

She is already the oldest woman to win Olympic wrestling gold (women’s wrestling was added to the Olympic program in 2004, Icho’s first Games). By 2020, she will be older than any men’s wrestling champion since Bulgarian Valentin Yordanov in 1996.

How much a home Olympics influences Icho’s decision is something that she didn’t share. Icho said she might go for a fifth Olympics even if the 2020 Games were not in Japan.

“It’s hard to say,” said Ken Marantz, who has covered sports in Japan for three decades. “She’s kind of a quiet person.”

United World Wrestling shadowed Icho and the more-famous Japanese wrestler Saori Yoshida before the Rio Olympics as both trained to go for their fourth gold medals. The international federation made a 20-minute documentary titled, “The Celebrity and the Samurai.”

Yoshida was the celebrity, her face a constant on TV, Icho the samurai, a zen-like warrior. Yoshida would lose in her Rio Olympic final to Maroulis, one day after Icho won her weight class.

“Kaori, she was always more private and less approachable, not in a bad way,” said William May, who has written about international wrestling for 30 years, including for Kyodo News in Tokyo. “She’s always been kind of a mystery to the Japanese.”

Like when she lived in Canada with her sister for months after the 2008 Olympics, skipping a world championships during her peak years.

“It’s not that I don’t like being on TV, but I don’t like my practice time being taken away or to lose time for myself,” Icho said in the 2016 United World Wrestling film.

Something else to consider is that Japan is the world power in women’s wrestling. It might be more difficult for Icho to earn Japan’s one available Olympic spot in the 58kg division than run through the Olympic bracket of the best from the rest of the world.

Japanese women took gold at the 2017 World Championships in both the 55kg and 60kg divisions. Those two women, both several years younger than Icho, must choose to go for the Olympics in the 53kg, 58kg or 63kg divisions.

Maroulis, who now competes at 58kg, wants to face Icho at the Olympics in what she called “a dream” matchup. The American’s dominance the last three years rivals Icho’s heyday — world titles in 2015 and 2017 without surrendering a point, winning the latter title with a torn thumb ligament, and dethroning Yoshida in Rio in between, all three golds at different weights while compiling a 78-1 record before the concussion.

Icho described her recent practice with Maroulis as “very hard.”

“She doesn’t quit,” Icho said through the translator. “She just keeps coming.”

Icho re-emerged in Japanese headlines in recent months as a tragic figure. A reported history of verbal harassment and threats from a Japanese Wrestling Federation director who resigned.

The biggest Japanese athlete story at the Tokyo Games would be if two-way baseball star Shohei Ohtani suited up, Marantz said. But Ohtani is on a Los Angeles Angels contract until 2024, which would keep him out of the Games unless MLB reverses its stance and releases players for the Olympics.

After that, perhaps Kohei Uchimura, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic all-around champion gymnast expected to compete in fewer events in the last years of his career. (Icho said that if she could pick anybody to light the Olympic cauldron, not including wrestlers, it would be Uchimura.)

Or the Japanese men’s 4x100m relay team that took silver in Rio and bronze at the 2017 Worlds. Or a rising group of table tennis players challenging the rival Chinese.

Swimming, gymnastics and judo are more popular sports in Japan than wrestling, Marantz said. But the nation would be pulling for Icho’s pursuit of individual gold in five Olympics, something no man or woman from any nation in any sport has done.

“Icho does not care one bit for records,” Tim Foley, who followed Icho for the 2016 film and escorted her in New York, said before the Rio Games. 

“Of course [Icho] wants to win, but it’s less important than wrestling a perfect match,” May said. That’s one thing she hasn’t done.

“I think she likes the challenge,” Marantz said. “Any tournaments that I went to that she won, which was all the ones she was in, she never, ever said she wrestled good.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Helen Maroulis wrestled in the dark with concussion