STANFORD, Calif. – Ryan Lochte is winning again and it feels so …
“It didn’t feel good at all,” Lochte said Sunday after winning his first national title in five years.
A day after turning 35, the six-time Olympic gold medalist – and 12-time medalist – won the 200-meter individual medley at the Phillips 66 National Championships.
“I just remember years ago it feeling soooo much easier,” said Lochte, who put himself back in the conversation for his fifth straight Olympic team in his first competition since serving a 14-month suspension for an excessive IV dose. “But it’s a starting point for me.
“And, you know, I’m going to be a lot better next year.”
Lochte clocked 1 minute, 57.76 seconds to win by more than a second, although he was well off his world and Olympic record of 1:54.00 set in 2009.
It was his fifth title in the event going back to 2009.
Lochte was in sixth place after the first leg, butterfly, but took the lead on the backstroke and never relinquished it at the meet, which is part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
After touching the wall, Lochte spit out some water, grimaced, squinted at the scoreboard and then leaned on the lane rope.
Shaine Casas, who won the 100 backstroke Saturday night, was second in 1:58.83 and Jake Foster took third in 1:59.15. Foster’s younger brother, Carson, posted a personal best time of 1:58.69 in the B final.
“I don’t know half the swimmers I’m swimming against because they’re all like 10 years younger than me,” Lochte said.
Actually, Jake Foster is 16 years younger.
“But, I mean, it’s fun just getting on those blocks and racing again and just being happy again with the sport,” said Lochte. “I lost that mojo that I had in me a while ago and now I’m finally getting it better, so I guess you can say I owe it to my family because I’m doing it for them.”
Lochte has married and had two kids since the Olympic Games Rio 2016, when he was the focus of an international incident at a gas station and was suspended for 10 months. Alcohol was involved, but Lochte, who called the last three years a “roller coaster,” checked himself into rehab for six weeks.
Now he said he doesn’t drink except for a glass of wine to celebrate the birth of his daughter Liv Rae on June 19 – and he didn’t really care for it.
“I think it’s pretty obvious now I’m 100-percent family,” said Lochte, who also has a 2-year-old son, Caiden, with his wife Kayla. “They’ve changed my whole entire life and my whole perspective about everything.
“That party boy image that I used to have, I know it kind of messed me up and it stuck with me, but that’s not me. I could care less about that lifestyle. My celebrations are picking up my son and my daughter and playing with them.”
Lochte’s not only a changed man; he also changes diapers. “I am the best,” he said. “Like seriously, I am the best.”
He said he told his wife about his expertise before their son was born. “And my wife was like, ‘Oh, you’re going to be 100 percent on diaper duty.’ And then every time he has a dirty diaper, it’s like, ‘Daddy? Daddy?’ I’m a pro at it. I’m the best.”
And on Sunday, he was the best once again in the pool.
Although Lochte swam 1:57.88 in a 200 IM time trial on Wednesday, he struggled in his other events, placing 37th in the preliminaries of the 200 freestyle, 20th in the finals of the 100 fly and 15th in the prelims of the 100 backstroke.
“Every time I got up on the blocks and raced, it was the hardest thing,” Lochte said. “Just getting that feel back and racing – that competitive edge, I lost it. And I’m just slowly getting it back.”
He said if the meet started Sunday, he’d be a lot better. “I just needed to kick the rust off,” he said.
Lochte will also plunge into more serious training. He said that in the six weeks since his daughter was born he has been sleep-deprived and would go to the pool maybe four times in a week. Now he plans to get a night nanny “just so I can get my sleep.”
Lochte trains with the group at his alma mater, the University of Florida, which means he sees Caeleb Dressel, whom he calls “the best swimmer in the world” at practice.
“There’s certain things I can’t do any more that I used to when I was 20 years old, 24,” said Lochte, who made his first Olympic team in 2004 when he was 19. “I have to really listen to my body so there’s days when this old man needs a break from swimming.”
But his performance was no surprise to coaches and former teammates at nationals.
“He’s always been one of the most talented swimmers in the world,” said Mark Schubert, a seven-time Olympic coach and former national team director who coaches the Mission Viejo Nadadores. “This is his signature event and he just really wanted to be good at it. I think he’ll admit that he’s not quite there yet, but he’s got another year and I think he’s going to be real good next year.”
Mark Gangloff, who won relay gold medals in 2004 and 2008 as Lochte’s teammate and is now the University of North Carolina coach, said that having a wife and kids “changes your whole perspective on the world and allows him to come out here and perform for a more meaningful reason.
“He’s one of the best swimmers that’s ever been around. So you never count a guy like Ryan out.”
Lochte will have tough competition for the two 200 IM spots on the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team.
Chase Kalisz is the 2017 world champion and 2019 world bronze medalist, while Michael Andrew and Abrahm DeVine joined Kalisz among the world’s top 10 performers this year. Lochte’s time was .08 out of 10th place on the world list.
But, said Schubert, “They have to beat Ryan Lochte.”