Missy Franklin (L) and Ryan Lochte are competing in fewer events at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games than they did four years ago in London.
RIO DE JANEIRO – This is a city whose global renown owes to a feeling that life is a beach – a virtual mandate to let the good times roll on Ipanema and Copacabana. So maybe it’s fitting that the 2016 Olympic Games will seem like lazy days on the strand for Missy Franklin and Ryan Lochte compared to their past experiences in the summer Games.
The irony is neither is likely to have days in the sun the way Franklin did in 2012, and Lochte did in both 2012 and 2008.
This time around, they are Olympians, not stars, each swimming far fewer events than in the past, each likely to consider an individual event medal of any color as good as the golds they won four years ago in London.
Michael Phelps, selected U.S. flag bearer at Friday’s Opening Ceremony, had a press conference to himself this week. So did Katie Ledecky, who has replaced Franklin as the “it” girl of U.S. swimming.
Lochte and Franklin shared a press conference with fellow London gold medalist Nathan Adrian.
“The leadup for me to this Games has been a lot different than 2012,” Lochte said.
Lochte has had plenty of time to get used to being in the shadows. His splendid, four-Olympics career has been entirely eclipsed by that of Phelps, in his fifth Games.
Yet the goofy side of Lochte is such he will not go unnoticed. Showing up with hair dyed in a color combination not found in nature guaranteed that.
“I really don’t know” what color it is, he said, then explained, “It’s a light bluish grey.”
People have asked him if the new hair color was an attempt to hide his gray.
“I wasn’t too gray,” he insisted.
That tonsorial statement meant Lochte, who turned 32 Wednesday, immediately commanded some attention with his usual goofiness.
“The hair is a bold statement,” he said. “It’s different, and that’s me, that’s my personality, just being different.”
That personality is another reason it is easy to overlook just how remarkable his career has been.
As I noted during the 2015 world championships, when Lochte won the 200-meter individual medley to match Australia’s Grant Hackett as the only swimmers to win four straight world titles in the same event, his larger-than-life, lighter-than-air demeanor has left the impression that he is a goofball through and through.
“But,” I wrote, “no one could have accomplished what Lochte has in the sport without a dead serious dedication to his craft and a formidable will to push his body past injury and the ravages of age.”
Those ravages have included a torn ACL from a freak accident in late 2013. He eschewed surgery, and the recovery took longer than expected.
“The past couple years haven’t been up to par for myself, my standards,” he said. “I think I’m the underdog now, even though with what I’ve accomplished in the sport, it doesn’t seem that way. But it’s really good for my mindset that I’m the underdog, and I have to earn my spot on the podium.”
In three previous Olympics, Lochte has swum 12 events – eight individual, four relays – and won medals in 11, with five golds, three silvers and three bronzes. He missed the podium only with a fourth in the 200 freestyle at the London Games, where he swam six events.
In 2012, Lochte won the 400 IM in the second-fastest time ever. That left Phelps, then two-time defending Olympic champion in the event, four seconds behind in fourth.
“I had more of a target on my back in London,” Lochte said.
For Rio, he qualified to swim just one individual event, the 200 IM, and one relay, the 4x200 freestyle, where he has an excellent shot at a fourth straight gold. The IM will be another renewal of his long rivalry in the race with Phelps, although Japan’s Kosuke Hagino is the favorite.
“He has pushed me and made me a better swimmer,” Lochte said of Phelps.
With Phelps insisting this is his final Olympics – as he had said in 2012 - this should mark the end of that rivalry. But Lochte reprised his 2012 statement on the issue, saying he expects another comeback from Phelps.
“I honestly don’t think it’s going to be his last Games,” Lochte said.
Franklin, 21, also is in a much different place than she was four years ago, before back problems and the decision to turn pro complicated her swimming life.
In London, just after her junior year of high school, she swam seven events, four individual. Franklin won both backstrokes, setting a world record in the 200, and she was part of two gold-medal relays that set world records. Her four gold medals were most by a woman in all sports at the 2012 Games.
A year later, just before matriculating at Cal-Berkeley, she won six gold medals at the world championships. She was at the absolute top of her sport.
As had been widely expected, Franklin ended her amateur career after her second year at Cal. She moved back home to Colorado to train again with the coach who got her to the top of the sport, Todd Schmitz.
Her financial rewards from going pro have been great, but the expectations clearly have weighed her down.
Franklin’s glory at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials was her guts. After a dismal seventh in the 100 backstroke, she ground her way to Rio with second places in the 200 freestyle and backstroke. Only the top two in each event at trials qualified to swim those events here.
“To get my hand on the wall when I needed (at trials), to realize I still have that fire, those guts I really believe I’ve had my whole career gives me a lot of confidence here,” she said.
Asked if she also had been able to reclaim some of her past form in the month since the trials, Franklin made it clear the problem wasn’t physical.
“I don’t necessarily think my endurance was an issue, or my athleticism,” she said. “I have felt for the past several months I am in the best shape I ever have been in. I have had that reinforced.
“Trials was just a very different experience for me. I wasn’t really prepared for the emotional aspect of it. I felt pressure a lot more than I ever have before. I have normally been able to handle that really well, but it was something I really struggled with at trials.”
Franklin stands an excellent chance of winning Rio gold in the 4x200 free. But her odds of an individual medal are low: in 2016, she is just the 11th-fastest swimmer in the 200 free and ninth-fastest in the 200 back. She went into London as the world leader in the both backstrokes.
“With a lot of the pressure gone and a better mindset, knowing I will have the endurance and the heart and guts on top of that, it’s a pretty good combination for me,” she said.