Ryan Lochte gazed across the pool at CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska, his arms resting on the lane lines. His black goggles still sat over his eyes and his matching swim cap atop his head as the final results sprawled across the screen.
1 minute, 59.67 seconds. In the 200-meter individual medley, the event which gifted Lochte a trio of Olympic medals and in which he still holds the world record for both long and short courses, the 36-year-old was more than two seconds too slow.
The second-most decorated Olympic swimmer of all time, Lochte’s pursuit of gold medals may have ended on June 18 in that pool in Omaha, but his many accolades still lie wrapped in a cloud of controversy the former Gator may never outrace.
Lochte, a Daytona Beach, Florida, native, joined the UF swim team in 2002 as a four-time individual Florida Class 3A state champion at Spruce Creek High School, taking the crown in the 200-yard and 500-yard freestyle twice each. A freestyle and IM specialist, Lochte readied for his first season under coach Gregg Troy.
Lochte’s freshman year exceeded any expectations his high school resume could have offered. In his first campaign with the orange and blue, he took home SEC Freshman Swimmer of the Year honors. He won SEC Swimmer of the Week in January, was the high-point scorer at the conference championship with 57 points and captured a pair of individual conference wins in the 1,650-yard freestyle and the 400-yard individual medley, the first of three consecutive SEC victories in the latter event.
He ended his debut as an All-American and a First Team All-SEC member, honors he would be bestowed with all four years at Florida.
The following year, Lochte won his first national championship in the 400-yard individual medley, a further harbinger for future IM dominance. The star swimmer, across his four years carving through the water in The Swamp, walked away from UF swimming with nine individual conference titles, six individual national titles, and a trio of NCAA records, including the 100-yard backstroke, 200-yard IM and the 400-yard IM. He won SEC Swimmer of the Year and NCAA Swimmer of the Year both of his final two seasons in Gainesville.
After his 2003-2004 sophomore campaign, however, Lochte began to break out on the international stage as well. He qualified for the 2004 Athens Olympics as a 19-year-old in the 200-meter individual medley and as a member of the 4×200-meter freestyle relay. He turned 20 two weeks before the competitions and took home medals in both events, teaming with Michael Phelps, Peter Vanderkaay and Klete Keller to take home the relay gold before finishing second to Phelps in the medley.
Lochte’s career blossomed from that week in Greece onward. He held five short course world records between 2006 and 2012, including the 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter individual medley and the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke. His 200-meter short course IM record stands to this day. He set a long course world record in the 200-meter IM at the 2011 World Championships as well, the first world record set after the full-body swimsuit ban.
Lochte’s most notable success came from his triumphs bearing the stars and stripes. The 6-foot-2 Olympic stalwart won 10 more medals on sport’s biggest stage between the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics, including six total golds. His 12 medals are second-most among male swimmers, trailing only Phelps’ staggering 28. He helped bring home the 4×200-meter freestyle relay gold in four straight games and topped the podium alone in the 2008 200-meter backstroke and the 2012 400-meter individual medley.
Lochte’s personality out of the pool brought him crossover appeal to the general public as well, partly stemming from his eyebrow-raising Twitter presence. He guest-starred as a parody of himself in an episode of NBC’s “30 Rock” in 2012 and landed an appearance in the CW’s 90210 that same year. National Public Radio described the swimmer as the “platonic ideal of bro-dom” in 2013, and he starred in his own reality TV show, “What Would Ryan Lochte Do,” for a season that same year.
However, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio began the start of the second chapter of Lochte’s career, one less defined by his internet persona and in-pool excellence, but rather one riddled with tension and the specter of controversy.
Five days after Lochte earned his fourth consecutive gold in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay, on August 14, 2016, the Floridian swimmer said he and three of his teammates were robbed at gunpoint in Rio de Janeiro. The American star said the athletes were stopped in their taxis by men who flashed badges, but as the days crept by, Brazilian police refuted Lochte’s report.
Civil Police chief Fernando Veloso said there wasn’t a robbery committed, but rather the USA athletes vandalized a bathroom and damaged property at the gas station, and any gun involved was a legal weapon used by a security guard. In a span of four days, Lochte went from the victim of an international incident to a liar and a perpetrator.
While further investigation cast Veloso’s account into doubt as well, Lochte said later in an interview he had been drunk and embellished his account of the night’s events.
Lochte apologized and USA Swimming suspended him from international and domestic competition for 10 months. Speedo, Ralph Lauren, Airweave and Gentle Hair Remover all dropped their sponsorship of Lochte in response to his behavior. Darren Rovell tweeted that Lochte lost about $1 million dollars of endorsement deals in a single day.
“Lochtegate”, as the event was colloquially called, came to define the 2016 Rio Olympics and Lochte’s career. In a sport with very little crossover mainstream interest, all of the former Gators’ NCAA titles and world championships washed away in a few sentences, an exaggerated account of a night out.
It wasn’t the end of Lochte’s legal issues, either. In 2018, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) handed him a 14-month suspension from competition after he violated anti-doping legislation for failing to get a Therapeutic Use Exemption before he received an intravenous infusion of over 100 milliliters within a 12-hour period.
Lochte posted a photo of the injection on his Instagram, which he swiftly deleted, and though the substance he used wasn’t banned, he accepted the suspension. An ESPN story cited him as the third athlete suspended for such an offense in the USADA database and the first year-long swimming suspension levied out in over a decade.
“I know it sounds like a harsh penalty for something unintentional and where I didn’t put anything prohibited in my body,” Lochte said in a statement accepting the suspension, “but a rule is a rule and I accept that there is a technical violation…I am hoping other athletes will learn from my mistake and be mindful of this rule.”
By the end of the suspension in July 2019, Lochte had been suspended from competition for 24 of the previous 35 months dating back to the 2016 Olympics.
Lochte’s troubles took a grounded turn in October 2018, when he entered a rehab program to help with alcohol addiction. Police had responded to a California hotel where he reportedly attempted to kick down his door after locking himself out. In an interview with The Guardian, Lochte admitted he was heading down a dark path and saw a dangerous pattern in his behavior.
Lochte’s focus on the 2020 Olympics never wavered, and though he had to wait an extra year to do so, the 36-year-old finally got his last gasp at Olympic glory in that Omaha pool. One race stood between him and the ability to end his international career with a proper note rather than a whiff.
He got his chance in the 200-meter IM. He’d grabbed silver in the event twice, in 2004 and 2012, and a bronze in 2008, the only individual event he’d medaled in three times, not to mention four consecutive world championships from 2012-2015. Lochte couldn’t have asked for a better event to make his final run at glory.
With only the top two finishers in the final heat advancing to the Tokyo Games later this summer, Lochte never had the pace. While Michael Andrew flirted with the one world record Lochte still holds, 1.16 seconds ahead of pace entering the final 50 meters, Lochte hung near the back of the pack and finished seventh of the final eight contestants.
Andrew didn’t break Lochte’s world record in Omaha, but it felt symbolic seeing Lochte chase his own world record line from several seconds behind. In a sport which so few men can, Lochte couldn’t fend off Father Time again, and his dream of rewriting the end of his Olympic career came to pass.
Despite the weight of the expected end of a legendary Olympic legacy, Lochte didn’t seem melancholic about his future. With his children Caiden and Liv in attendance, whom he embraced on-camera after his semifinal performance, an older Lochte viewed the time to come in a different light.
“This ain’t the end of the road,” Lochte said in an interview after the race.
Lochte expanded upon what he envisions for himself in an Instagram post he shared on June 24 on the steps of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in the heart of his alma mater’s campus. Lochte thanked his family and fans for their support throughout his career, and while he may not represent the stars and stripes on the global stage again, he feels he has more to offer the sport.
“I’m not done, I’m not retiring,” Lochte said. “There’s so much more I want to do in the sport of swimming whether it’s in the pool or outside of the pool, trying to grow the sport because of the love and passion that I have.”
“I want to put swimming in people’s living rooms all the time, so I’m still going to be doing that, I’m still going to be in the sport and I’m still going to be trying to teach kids how to swim.”
Lochte’s vows and promises in his video expose the flaw of examining his legacy in 2021 — it isn’t complete. From his first day as a Florida Gator to the steps of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in June, Lochte’s summitted the highest peaks and explored the deepest valleys the sport has to offer, his successes and failures coming at his own hand.
The lasting impact he leaves on swimming as a whole, however, remains to be seen. He won’t get the chance to end his Olympic career on different terms, and he might never escape the controversy from that fateful night in Rio.
In his own words, however, he isn’t done. His final Olympic trial may have ended a chapter of his life, but it didn’t end the book, a sentiment he emphasized after his final race in Omaha.
“There’s a lot more I want to accomplish in the sport of swimming,” Lochte said.