Ryan Lochte is talking about what he would like to do after he retires from swimming, and he clearly hasn’t thought through his answer.
“Something to do with working with kids,” he said. “I’m so good with kids that I would want to do something like that. But I don’t know what. I don’t know. Just working with kids somehow.”
In some respects, this is what people have come to expect from Lochte, who is as renowned for his dumb-jock persona as he is for his five gold medals.
But it’s been about two years since the E! television network solidified his goofball image with a reality show. And it’s been 14 months since he left Gainesville, Fla., to start training in Charlotte for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Under SwimMAC Carolina coach David Marsh, there are no rules, no curfews, no one making sure he gets to where he needs to be. He’s being treated like an adult – so he’ll sink or swim on his own.
And this is it for Lochte. At 30 years old, he is starting the final push for his final run at his final Olympics, a task that will require more focus and discipline than ever.
The question is: Is Charlotte the right place for Lochte to rise to that challenge?
Living a glamorous life
Roughly 99.999 percent of us can only fantasize about having the life of Ryan Lochte.
The man is among the best at his profession, ranked No. 2 in the world last year in the 200-meter individual medley and the current world-record holder in both that event and the 400 individual medley.
Product endorsement deals – including the one with his primary sponsor, Speedo – have made him a millionaire several times over.
He routinely racks up frequent flier miles with trips to Perth, Australia, where he finished second in the 200-meter individual medley at a meet in January; to LA for a Speedo photo shoot (and a visit to the Playboy Mansion) in February; and to the Bahamas, where he and several teammates were to compete in a time trials event Saturday.
He has a physique rivaling a Greek god’s, and a face – chiseled in the mold of a Hollywood sex symbol’s – that is easily recognizable.
After a recent Saturday practice at Queens University of Charlotte, Lochte and fellow Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones managed to sit on the nearly deserted lawn of the Levine Center for Wellness and Recreation for about two minutes before they were recognized.
Related stories from Charlotte Observer
“Hey, weren’t you in the Olympics?” said a passerby. “Do you mind if we get a picture with you?”
The teammates obliged, then took off in Lochte’s white Bentley Continental GT, which is worth more than the average home in Charlotte.
On top of all this, he’s single.
But despite his fame, his fortune, and his reputation as a partier, as he tells it: “The only time that it gets a little wild is during the weekend, when I don’t have morning practice and I can go out – go to a nightclub, go to a bar.”
Otherwise, he said, he mostly just sits on the couch and watches movies with his Doberman pinscher, Carter, or with Jones, whose apartment is a floor above the one Lochte rents in uptown.
“My life is boring during the week. I just eat, sleep and swim.”
‘He’s like my brother’
Lochte and Jones have been friends for almost a decade now. They met at the Pan Pacific Championships, where they switched roommates to bunk together after discovering a mutual love for rapper Lil Wayne.
Another reason Lochte left Gainesville was to be close to Jones.
Now, Lochte said, “if I want to, I just go up, walk right into his place, sit on the couch and start watching TV – even if he’s not there. He’ll come home and be like, ‘Oh, hey Ryan. What’s up?’”
They routinely carpool to practice. They go bar-hopping on the weekends, often winding up at Vault Charlotte, an EpiCentre nightclub that Jones owns a piece of. Ever since the Pan Pacs in 2005, they’ve always roomed together at meets.
“He’s not just my best friend, he’s more like my brother,” Lochte said. “My brother from another mother.”
Jones said Lochte is “that fun goofy person that gets me through practices. He’s great to just hang out and go to dinner with, and just talk about whatever with.”
But he also said Lochte “is possibly the most driven person I’ve ever seen. When he sets his mind to something, it’s unreal. And that’s inside or outside the pool. When he moved to Charlotte, he moved into his place in about an hour and a half. He was so focused to get in and get everything all set up. I’m like, ‘You can do this tomorrow!’ He’s like, ‘NO! Right now.’”
As for the reality show, “What Would Ryan Lochte Do?” – which went a long way toward casting Lochte as an airhead – Jones said: “The show did not depict him in the right light. He gets it really bad sometimes from people, and it’s disheartening, because he’s just not that person.”
Smarter under the surface
Marsh tried to recruit Lochte when Marsh was coach at Auburn University and Lochte was at Spruce Creek High School in Port Orange, Fla.
“It was painful to talk with him,” Marsh said. “But it wasn’t unintelligent talk, it was just surfer talk. And he usually had just finished a hard workout that kicked his butt, so a lot of times he was exhausted.”
Here’s the reality, Marsh said:
“He is bright. He is very perceptive. He can be in a room with a lot of things going on and not miss a beat; he knows exactly what’s going on in the entire room. He has a lot of sense as far as what he can do to make a situation better, and most valuable, he has the ability to pull himself away from negativity.”
It’s a fair point. In an age when one bad decision can cost a pro athlete dearly – or at least a day of infamy on social media – risk, temptation and bad influences lurk around every corner.
Fellow Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps has been arrested for driving under the influence twice, and famously was photographed using a marijuana pipe in 2009, resulting in the loss of a major sponsor and a suspension by USA Swimming.
All Lochte seems to be guilty of is making a silly reality TV show and being inarticulate or thoughtless in interviews.
He enjoys a good party and having a drink in his hand, but he said anytime anyone asks to get their photo taken with him, he sets the drink down. He likes fast cars, but has just one speeding ticket on his record, from five years ago.
He has a reputation for being a ladies’ man. “They love themselves some Ryan Lochte,” Jones said, laughing. “Let’s just leave it at that. I can’t divulge any secrets, but they love themselves some Ryan.” But he’s steered clear of any controversy related to his sex life.
On the lookout for love?
Though Lochte is single, if you search “Ryan Lochte girlfriend” on Google, you’ll get close to 200,000 results, including: “Ryan Lochte shares what he’s not looking for in a girlfriend”; “Ryan Lochte: My ideal girl ‘doesn’t have to play a sport’”; and, of course, “10 tips for becoming Ryan Lochte’s girlfriend.”
He was featured in People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” issue in 2012, and at one point following the London Games that year, he reportedly turned down an opportunity to be on ABC’s “The Bachelor.”
Lochte, meanwhile, said he “definitely” wants a girlfriend. And, perhaps surprisingly, his coach would like him to get one too.
“He enjoys the fact that women think he looks good, and I know he enjoys the opposite sex, for sure,” Marsh said. But “I would prefer he find one girl and rent a lot more Netflix movies. So that’s a challenge to the ladies out there in Charlotte.”
A bit older, a bit wiser
A girlfriend may have to wait. For the next 500 days, Lochte has one main goal: Rio de Janeiro.
He’ll be 32 years old when the Olympics open there on Aug. 5, 2016, which is rather ancient in the world of top-tier international swimming. Focus, dedication and maturity have become more critical than ever.
The mere fact that Lochte is even in Charlotte shows he’s done some growing up, according to the woman who has been tracking his growth for three decades.
“For his training, Gainesville was fantastic,” said his mother, Ike Lochte of Daytona Beach, Fla. “But the lifestyle in Gainesville, I wouldn’t want for anybody. It’s a college life, and you have no responsibilities.
“I want him to have a normal, adult lifestyle, and I think that’s what North Carolina has given him. He doesn’t hang around with young college kids. He actually is held accountable for his actions. Nobody says, ‘You have to do this,’ and, ‘You have to do that.’ He really is on his own, and he’s doing a better job at making his own decisions.”
Ryan Lochte summed it up: “I’m not in a college town, so I can’t think in a college mindset. I have to think more like a grown-up.”
So, till Rio, swimming is what’s of the utmost importance to Lochte. Not girls or bars, not being on another reality TV show, and certainly not what other people think about how smart or interesting or intellectual he is.
“I know who I am,” Lochte said. “My family knows who I am. So anyone else can portray me as anything they want, and I don’t really care. Whatever they say goes through one ear and out the other.”
Ryan Lochte’s big tests
▪ FINA World Championships, July 24-Aug. 9 in Russia: The last major international competition before the Olympic Trials.
▪ 2016 Olympic Trials, June 26-July 3 in Omaha, Neb.: Excelling here is the only way to punch his ticket to Rio.
▪ 2016 Summer Olympics, Aug. 5-21 in Rio de Janeiro: For swimmers of his caliber, this is the only meet that matters.
Ryan Lochte on...
His favorite movie: “‘Belly,’ with DMX. Not many people know about that one, because I say ‘Belly’ and they’re like, ‘Uhh, OK, whatever that is.’”
His favorite Instagrammers: “I like Ludacris because he posts crazy pictures of him flying on a jet. Or Kevin Hart. He’s the funniest person ever.”
Visiting the Playboy Mansion in February: “It was on my bucket list, ever since I was little.”
Staying out of trouble: “I’ve learned from other people that have gotten in trouble in the past – like (pause) Michael (pause) Phelps (pause), and other people, football players. … I read all about that stuff, so I’m like, ‘Alright, this is what not to do.’”
See him swim
SwimMAC Carolina hosts the Arena Pro Swim Series at Charlotte May 14-17 at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center. Lochte and Phelps are scheduled to compete. Details: arenaproswimcharlotte.com.