EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — Ryan Lochte will compete in his first USA Swimming meet Saturday since his 10-month suspension for you-know-what. Might the Nassau County Aquatic Center’s pool serve as a sort of chlorinated baptismal font, washing away the sins of Rio?
Lochte tilted his head and considered that for a moment.
“No, not really,” he said.
The four-time Olympian and first-time father is not much for introspection. But surely he’s thought about what it means to get back in the deep end of the competitive pool.
“I don’t really have many thoughts” on that, Lochte told USA TODAY Sports Friday evening. “My suspension is up and this is my first meet back. That’s all I really can say.”
Lochte’s trespasses in Rio were exaggerated by Brazilian authorities, just as he exaggerated theirs. But the damning original reports are set in cement for many Americans who think he vandalized a service station bathroom he never actually entered. By now the real story is beside the point.
“Everyone is like a bandwagon,” Lochte said. “Like, as soon as they hear something they go with that and they don’t even try to find out what really happened. They just go with the worst story possible. But people live and learn and I’ve lived and learned and moved on.”
Lochte said back when his night on the town with teammates morphed into the story that ate the Olympics that he felt like the most hated man in America.
“That’s how I felt at the time,” he said. “Now? Not even close.”
Lochte had just spent an hour and 45 minutes signing autographs and posing for pictures for hundreds of giddy kids who waited patiently with their parents in a serpentine line. He signed swim caps and kickboards and backpacks. Some kids took selfies with Lochte just as their parents took shots of them taking selfies with Lochte, like some endless M.C. Escher loop. And Lochte looked like he enjoyed all of it just as much as did the wide-eyed kids with the mile-wide smiles.
“I really love you,” 13-year-old Caitlin Elsasser said as she approached. She and a couple of swim buddies each got individual photos plus a group shot. Elsasser bounced away like a magic bean.
“I put my arm around him” for the photo, she said. “Then he put his arm around me — and I died a little.”
That whole unpleasantness in Rio? Had not crossed her mind. “I wouldn’t want to hate on him for that,” she said. “When you meet him, he’s so sweet. I’d like to be him someday.”
And by that she means a 12-time Olympic medal winner, not a 33-year-old man.
Lochte remembers being 8 and idolizing an Olympic medal winner he’d rather not name.
“I had a piece of paper and I went to go get his autograph,” Lochte said. “And we were going down the elevator of the hotel. And he didn’t have his headphones on, he wasn’t concentrating, and I said, ‘Can I have your autograph?’ And he said no. And I was immediately in shock. I was torn apart. My heart was broken. And I was crying and I told my parents if I was ever in that position I would never say no.”
Lochte signed a T-shirt for Brian Kern while Kern was in it. Kern, 12, says Lochte is his idol. Wait, not Michael Phelps, so often No. 1 to Lochte’s No. 2? “Ryan, he’s just got a great personality,” Kern said. And that late night in Rio? “I think he messed up, but he’s recovering really well.”
Lochte feels similarly.
“Everyone makes mistakes,” he said. “I learned my lesson and I’ve moved on. I made myself a better person.”
No one brings up the night on the town anymore, Lochte said, except journalists in interviews.
“Whatever happened in the past happened in the past,” he said. “It’s what you do now that will shape who you are.”
And Lochte says he is shaped now by Caiden, his son born on June 8.
“That completely changed my life and completely changed me,” he said. “Honestly the reason why I came back is because of Caiden. There is more I wanted to accomplish in the sport of swimming, but my heart wasn’t there. We found out that we were having a child, and when Caiden was born, I was like, ‘That’s it. That’s what I needed.’ And this spark is a spark I’ve never had in my entire life. I can’t explain it. I’m more driven now than I have ever been.”
Lochte’s father Steven stood behind him as he signed all those autographs and said he has seen his son grow up in the few weeks since his own son’s birth.
“He is 110% focused on family,” Steven Lochte said. “He has a strong sense of responsibility to his son and to the sport of swimming. He’s still Ryan. Still happy go lucky, still carefree. But family is first. Second is swimming. Third is swimming. And fourth is swimming.”
Lochte said he and fiancée Kayla Rae Reid plan to marry, probably in 2018. And he hopes to swim at the Tokyo Games in 2020, when he will be 36.
“Age is just a number,” he said. “I’ve got dad strength and old-man strength. I’m not worried about my age.”
And he expects Phelps, his aging nemesis, to be in Tokyo too: “He’ll be there. I guarantee it. I said it in 2012 when he said he retired. I think he’s retired like eight times now.”
Phelps made news recently for his stunt race for Discovery’s Shark Week. Lochte appeared on a Nat Geo Wild commercial for its SharkFest, the joke being that Lochte was second to Phelps again, just as SharkFest is to Shark Week.
“That was me making fun of myself,” Lochte said. “Everything I do from now on is strategically planned with me and my team on just making me and my image better.”
Lochte said he will give his all to training in a way he has never done before as he prepares for what he hopes is his fifth Olympics team.
“I’ve always swam, and then like played basketball and did other things,” he said. “And just wasn’t fully committed to the sport. And now I’m ready.”
He means ready to start the journey back. He says he is not nearly in peak shape for Saturday’s 100-meter backstroke and Sunday’s 200-meter individual medley at the U.S. Open.
“I hope people aren’t thinking that because I’m back that I’m going to automatically start breaking records,” he said. “Not even the case. I haven’t done the training. I swim once a week, maybe. But in order to accomplish what I want to do in 2020, I have to start somewhere.”
Now he has 20/20 vision for the 2020 Games, an effort he has dedicated to Caiden.
“Before I always kind of like thought about myself, make sure I’m having a good time, go out and partying and all that,” Lochte said. “And now, it’s like I don’t want to. I’d rather be at home.”
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