So three years ago, my sports editor in Daytona Beach asked me something about Ryan Lochte.
“Who?” I replied innocently. He rolled his eyes, muttered something, and went back into his office.
To be fair, I don’t think most people had heard of Ryan Lochte in 2006. He was an international swimmer, sure, but he’d been out of college only a year, had swam at one Olympics (he got a relay gold and an individual silver in Athens in 2004), and wasn’t really known for much.
Now, I can tell you more than you’d ever want to know, since at my newspaper I’ve been on the “Lochte beat” for two years. In threatening to eclipse Vince Carter as the MFAFDB (or as you might call it, Most Famous Athlete From Daytona Beach), Lochte has become a major star.
The dude is 24 now, and has six Olympic medals to his credit. In the past two years he has emerged as the biggest rival in the pool to Michael Phelps. Lochte has beaten Phelps a couple of of times (of course, Phelps has beaten Lochte much more often), and last year at the U.S. Olympic swim trials the two staged a couple of epic duels.
At the Beijing Olympics, Lochte nabbed two golds and two bronzes, and set another world record, in the 200 backstroke.
Now if you follow swimming or the Olympics, you may know all that already. But being that I pretty much ate, slept, swam and breathed this guy last summer, (and wrote yet another story on him in today’s News-Journal) I thought I’d share a few things you might not know, because, hey, it’s my blog.
— Lochte’s a different kind of cat, in more ways than one. He didn’t really get serious about swimming until he was about 16; until then he just drove his dad, Steve, a respected national swim coach, nuts. Even for the first couple years at the University of Florida he wasn’t considered a star. Then he blew up and the rest is history.
— He’s also well … different. He’s got the “Spicoli” from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” thing down to a science. When he looks at you, his eyes are kind of vacant, and you’re never quite sure if he’s really paying attention. He’s terrible at returning phone calls, which isn’t atypical for athletes, except his own Mom (a sweetheart of a woman named Ike) often can’t get him on the horn.
— He’s turned into a gay icon, for some reason (well, probably because he looks good in a swimsuit); he’s been on the cover of several gay magazines and judging by the message boards I’ve seen, has thousands of gay fans.
–He eats candy all the time. I mean, ALL THE TIME. His mother still sends him bags of candy each week.
— He’s not exactly known for his timing; he got a stomach virus in Beijing, two days before he was about to race, because he brushed his teeth with water from the tap even though, like, 5,000 people had warned him not to do that.
— Because of his laid-back personality, he’s become in some ways a bigger fan favorite with the swimming community’s fans and media than Phelps. Phelps is pretty rigid and scripted; you never know what Lochte will say or do.
It’s funny, sportswriters like to say that we don’t really know these athletes, even when we cover them for years. In Lochte’s case, it’s completely, and literally, true.
I’d say I’ve interviewed him in person 6-8 times, and maybe over the phone another dozen, and I’m honestly not sure he’d remember my name if I didn’t remind him of it each time we meet. He’s basically a good guy, though.
Like I said, he’s just a different dude. But he’s an amazing athlete and a fantastic swimmer. The World Championships start today in Rome, and NBC is televising it at noon. Something called the Universal Sports network will have coverage throughout the week, and then NBC will televise the finals next weekend. Lochte isn’t going head-t0-head with Phelps this meet, so he’ll probably come home with a world record or two. (Though the way swimming is going right now, it’s a shock when a world record isn’t broken. So much controversy over the different kinds of suits; I say, let ’em all swim naked, and we’ll have a fair race.)
If you get a chance, check out my story on Lochte in today’s News-Journal, and on the tube today.
Look for the guy who looks slightly confused, but is going faster than everyone else, and you’ll see him.
**Sunday afternoon update: Lochte got his first gold medal of the Worlds, teaming with Phelps, Matt Grevers and Nathan Adrian to win the 4×100 free relay. Lochte has four events left to swim.