For Ryan Lochte, signs of change all around
Published: Saturday, May 24, 2014 at 9:15 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 23, 2014 at 7:02 p.m.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ryan Lochte walks slowly into the room, a bulky brace on his left knee. He's still got that same goofball demeanor, that same unique sense of fashion (on this day, he's wearing a fedora with his trademark phrase “Jeah” embroidered across the back).
But the signs of change are all around.
He's hobbled by the most serious injury of his career. He's adjusting to a new home in North Carolina. And there's that 30th birthday looming in August, the surest sign that he's getting closer and closer to the day when he'll have to find something else to do besides swimming.
“As you get older,” Lochte said, “your body doesn't get any younger. I've started to realize that.”
Lochte is an 11-time Olympic medalist who would surely be recognized as his generation's greatest swimmer if not for Michael Phelps. He left his longtime coach, UF's Gregg Troy, and familiar training base in Gainesville last fall. The abrupt move to Charlotte, where he joined the prestigious SwimMAC Carolina program run by Dave Marsh, was done in typical Lochte fashion.
“I'm not exactly sure how it came about,” said Marsh. “I just know he showed up in Charlotte.”
Marsh was skeptical of Lochte's intentions — and his reputation. Even though landing one of the world's best swimmers is a coup for any club, the coach wanted to make sure Lochte was making the move for all the right reasons, not because he wanted to bring his party boy image to a new city or was trying to line up another reality TV show.
“My biggest concern was his impact on the group,” Marsh conceded. “He has an infectious personality, so people are going to go with him. I didn't want to see him come here and get on the party train and pull others with him, people who don't have the ability to get away with that and still have success.”
For a while, Marsh wondered what he had gotten himself into. Lochte would show up at the pool for a training session, then disappear for a week. As the coach put it, “He was not in shape, and getting in worse shape.” Then, in November, a jarring event seemed to change Lochte's perspective.
On a return visit to Gainesville, an exuberant teenage fan ran at Lochte, who tried to catch her. The two fell over and Lochte hit his left knee on a curb, tearing one ligament and spraining another. Suddenly, he realized that nothing was a given when it comes to his swimming career.
“That might have been a little bit of an awakening for him,” Marsh said.
Showing a newfound dedication, Lochte worked hard to rehab his knee. Then, at a Grand Prix meet in Arizona last month that also marked Phelps' returns from retirement, Lochte pushed himself a little too hard on the breaststroke leg of the individual medley. The knee ached and began to swell. His doctor told him to back off for a while or risk a major setback.
One thing about Lochte: He doesn't back off well.
“I'm like Wolverine,” he said. “Nothing can keep me down.”
If anything, this might be another blessing in disguise, according to Marsh. With Lochte unable to use his legs in training, he can focus on improving his upper body strength and perhaps his biggest weakness — the way he uses his arms to “pull” himself through the water.
“Ultimately,” the coach said, “Humpty Dumpty might come back together even better.”
Assuming the ailing knee regains its strength and mobility. When talking about his injury, Lochte exudes his usual bravado for the most part. But, in a quieter moment, he reveals a bit of frailty.
“There's always concern,” he said. “I never had an injury that set me back like this.”
Even though the next Olympics are still more than two years away, this is an important summer. There's the national championships in early August, followed by the Pan Pacific Championships a couple of weeks later, with the combined results from those meets determining the U.S. team that will compete at the 2015 world championships.
Lochte may have to put the individual medley on the shelf for this year, depriving him of a chance to swim one of his best events at worlds. But he was already turning his focus to different races, knowing that he'll need to do some shorter distances as he moves into his 30s. As a swimmer ages, the body doesn't recover as quickly from previous races, making it tough to do the sort of grueling programs Lochte attempted in his younger days.
A newcomer to Lochte's program is the 100 butterfly, which puts him on a collision course with his longtime rival Phelps, the three-time defending Olympic champion in that event. Lochte, in fact, defeated Phelps in the fly at the Arizona meet.
“Now that I'm able to compete with him and be up there with him in the 100 fly, it's going to be interesting,” Lochte said.
It always is in the world of Ryan Lochte.