MINNEAPOLIS -- Ryan Lochte could have been just about anywhere he wanted on a recent Friday night.
Since winning two gold, two silver and a bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games, the swimmer has partied with Lil Wayne in Miami, “raced” Prince Harry at a nightclub in Las Vegas and covered New York Fashion Week as a special correspondent for E! And according to Lochte, fresh off cameos on “30 Rock” and “90210,” he has offers both to appear on “Saturday Night Live” and to be the Bachelor.
Yet on Friday, Nov. 9, the Floridian chose to flex his newfound star status not in Hollywood but in Minneapolis, where he was one of just eight U.S. Olympians taking part in the first USA Swimming Grand Prix meet of the 2012-13 season.
“I love racing,” he told TeamUSA.org in an exclusive interview. “That’s the one reason why I keep swimming.”
Lochte, 28 and a veteran of three Olympic Games, has already committed to competing through the 2016 Games that will be held in Rio de Janeiro. In the short-term, however, he has put his outside interests — fashion, TV, fitness, to name a few — on hold to dedicate himself to the FINA Short Course World Championships, which run Dec. 12-16 in Istanbul, Turkey.
Despite a two-and-a-half month break from swimming after the London Games, and only three weeks of full-time training, Lochte showed little rust in Minneapolis. In his first race since scoring a silver medal in the 200-meter IM on Aug. 2 in London, the 200-yard freestyle on Friday night, Lochte showcased his powerful underwater kicking to reel in Denmark’s Mads Glaesner in the final 50-yards. He went on to win all five races he tried for in the 25-yard pool on the University of Minnesota campus (in a sixth final, the 50 free, Lochte elected to swim the butterfly for training).
Lochte said he plans to swim six events at short course worlds, and he intends to race this at the FINA World Championships in the summer in Barcelona. Outside of that, though, he is purposely leaving his schedule for the next four years open — including the possibility for another break from swimming.
“The longest break I’ve had since I was 10 years old was like a week and a half, so I definitely wanted to take a long break,” Lochte said of his post-Olympic hiatus. “And I mean I still feel like I can take a longer break just because I think my body needs it, my mind needs it, but I just couldn’t because I have Short Course World Championships to go to.”
After the 2012 Games, there’s a lot Lochte could do on another break. Although he had six medals (three gold) from the 2004 and 2008 Games, his crossover popularity got a huge boost in London, where he starred in the pool and made a name for himself outside of it with his sometimes stiff interviews and polarizing antics, such as wearing an American-flag themed grill over his teeth on the medal stand.
Still, Lochte left London as one of Team USA’s most in-demand athletes.
Long a fashion aficionado, Lochte has already done some design with Speedo, one of his sponsors. After the Games, E! hired him to be an on-camera correspondent at New York Fashion Week in September. Next, Lochte said, “I definitely want to design clothes and hopefully have my own clothing line within the next year,” starting with men’s apparel and accessories and eventually moving into women’s clothing.
Lochte’s name also became attached to various TV shows. So far he has made the cameos on NBC’s “30 Rock” and the CW’s “90210,” but he was long rumored to be the next bachelor on ABC’s “The Bachelor.” And after host Seth MacFarlane’s less-than-flattering portrayal of a plodding Lochte on a September episode of “Saturday Night Live,” Lochte said he hoped to get invited onto the show to “redeem” himself.
“I mean, yeah, we’ve got offers for both of them, but if it doesn’t fit in with my training then it won’t work,” Lochte said of SNL and “The Bachelor,” later clarifying that he believes his offer was to be the bachelor, not one of the contestants, on the ABC show.
Of course the break also offered Lochte an opportunity to literally take a break. In the past Lochte has turned down opportunities to meet his “favorite hip-hop artist” Lil Wayne, but after London the swimmer and the rapper got to “hang out” twice — once at a club in Miami and once after Lil Wayne performed at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas.
It was also in Las Vegas when Lochte met Prince Harry. “We were both at a club and at this pool party club, and he found out that I was there and he wanted to meet me,” Lochte said. “So I went over to his table, we met, and he wanted to jump in and race, so we did.” Lost in Lochte’s typically understated recollection is the fact that the two were fully clothed in the pool, and that Harry’s friends tried to slow Lochte by holding his legs.
“Yeah, they were trying to cheat,” Lochte said, slyly, “but it didn’t work”
Nobody was holding Lochte’s legs a few weeks later in Minneapolis, but there were also no royals or platinum-selling musicians among the couple hundred fans in attendance, either.
For Lochte, the modest Minneapolis Grand Prix was a return to the life he knows, the life that made him famous in the first place. This slightly less glamorous life of a swimmer is also one that Lochte is not ready to give up yet. Before he is a fashion designer or an actor or a socialite, he is still an elite athlete who badly wants to be the best.
That drive gives Lochte what he calls “a switch” that allows him to tune out all of his outside distractions once he gets into the pool. “I think that’s why I’m able to go out and do all these, like, appearances and cameos and stuff like that for TV, and then at the same time I can turn it off like that and get back into training,” he said.
The switch appeared to be set solidly on swimming over the weekend. Although never one to express much outward emotion, Lochte appeared comfortable and in his element at the aquatic center, not the aloof caricature portrayed by MacFarlane and others (even Lochte himself, to some extent) after the Games. He played the part of an 11-time Olympic medalist with his performance in the pool, and though the weekend also featured four-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin and relay gold medalist Claire Donahue, Lochte was the event’s star attraction, too.
Around the pool, several small groups — mostly teenage girls — gathered to watch each of Lochte’s moves. Some sat in the far end of the aquatic center, out of view of the main pool, to watch Lochte swim warm-up laps in the diving well between races Friday night. On Saturday afternoon, two young girls burst through the main entrance to the outside, breathless, because they had just seen Lochte exit from a back door after his morning prelims.
With the retirement of Lochte’s longtime rival Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian, Lochte was asked how it feels to now be “the man” in U.S. swimming.
“You know, I never feel like I’m the man,” Lochte said. “There’s always someone there. You can’t single out anyone. Even though Michael says he’s retiring, there’s always someone there, no matter what, so I’ve just got to keep my eyes open and just keep doing what I’ve been doing, just focusing on myself.”
In Minneapolis, at a meet Lochte says he’s come to for the past six or seven years, there were other people he was focused on as well: his fans.
On Friday night, a foreign volunteer rushed around the pool deck holding an iPhone with Lochte’s picture on the screen, frantically looking for the Olympian. After a reporter pointed out Lochte, sitting on a bleacher preparing for his first race that was to begin in about 20 minutes, the volunteer ran to Lochte and asked for a picture. He stood up, put his arm around her and smiled, all the while other passersby queued to be next.
Later that night, Lochte opened up to reporters about a time when he was 10 years old and one of his favorite swimmers refused to sign an autograph, even though they were just standing in an elevator.
“And you know, at that age I was crushed, my heart was broken, I looked up to this guy and he said no,” said Lochte, who wouldn’t name the swimmer.
“I made a point: if I ever get to that position where people want my autograph or take pictures I’ll never say no. Still, to this day, I don’t like saying no. I let other people do that for me.”
Lochte laughed as he said the last part, making eye contact with a USA Swimming staffer who was preparing to whisk him out a back door to his hotel. Yet an hour later, Lochte still stood near the edge of the pool deck signing autographs and taking pictures with everyone who asked.
“You know what, I come to this meet to have fun,” Lochte said.
On this Friday night, it appeared he had done just that.