Ryan Lochte's days are numbered. Right now he's the world's best swimmer, but no one cares about that. Let's face it – the last time you watched a swim meet, it was in Beijing. The next one you'll watch will be in London. It's called the Olympics. Swimming is cruel that way: You bust your ass for years, and your legacy is determined in four or five days. Many think that in London, Lochte is going to make Michael Phelps wish he had retired and devoted all his free time to pitching Subway sandwiches with Jared. We'll see.

Lochte doesn't seem worried. It's June in Gainesville on the University of Florida campus. Lochte, 27, is swimming in the Gator Swim Club Invitational, an off-the-radar tune-up, before the Olympic Trials. He stands behind the blocks for a 100-meter breaststroke prelim – he's the guy in the lime-green, spiderwebbed Speedo of his own design. The swimmers from the previous race drag their bodies out of the pool. Lochte lazily flexes his arms, revealing a tattoo of the Olympic rings on his right bicep. There's an alligator on his right shoulder blade, repping his Florida Gator roots. His plan to have all his family members' birth dates tattooed on his torso was recently tabled, probably a wise business move, as the sometime model could have a fine career ahead of him in the Marky Mark genre.

A buzzer sounds, and Lochte steps up onto the blocks. His competitors coil into position, but not Lochte. Not immediately, anyway. Lochte casually brings his right hand to his face and slowly peels back all his fingers except his middle one. It is seconds before the gun goes off – and America's Great Olympic Hope is flipping someone the bird.

A moment later, Lochte launches himself into the water. When he's swimming well, Lochte's dad says, his son moves through the water "like a hydrofoil." Today, the hydrofoil has some engine problems – Lochte is still tapering down his training from months of 10K-a-day swimming, and his body aches – but at the turn, he kicks into a higher gear, moving across the surface of the water effortlessly, leaving his outclassed competitors gasping for their kickboards. Afterward, Lochte pats the guy in the next lane on the swim cap and slowly climbs out of the pool. He looks around, stretches, and sticks out his tongue at someone in the crowd. The whole show takes less than five minutes, but to anyone watching, it leaves a trail of doubt about Lochte's London prospects: Is this really the guy who's going to beat Michael Phelps with the whole world watching? Or is he just another Olympic disappointment, Bode Miller in a Speedo?

These aren't questions that Lochte seems to be pondering as he towels himself off and saunters – sort of a modified pimp walk – out to his white Range Rover for the short drive home. At this moment, he wants you to think he doesn't have a care in the world.

The Gillette and Gatorade commercials have been shot. The prototype Wheaties boxes sit on his coffee table. An exercise video is in the can. Now all Lochte has to do is swim. Ah, but that would be too sensible. Lochte doesn't want to just swim. He wants to shoot hoops and go skydiving and drive his Audi R8 100 miles per hour over the speed limit. And he wants to dress in a style that led one TV show to call him a "D-bag, but our D-bag."

But beyond the swagger and the pre-Olympic hype, it is Ryan Lochte, not Michael Phelps, who is America's premier swimmer as the London Games approach. He is a five-time world champion and currently holds the world record in both the 200- and 400-meter individual medley. At the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, Lochte outdueled Phelps in the 200-meter individual medley, setting a new world record and eventually being named Swimmer of the Year. Afterward, Lochte said, "One word describes that race – jeah!" (Jeah is a made-up word Lochte lifted from rapper Young Jeezy, roughly meaning, uh, awesome.) He climbed onto the medal stand wearing optic-green shoes he'd helped design and with a rapper's silver grill covering his teeth. Old-timers collapsed onto their fainting couches.

All Ryan Lochte has to do now is keep his shit together. That might prove tougher than beating Michael Phelps.

The man charged with leading Lochte to Olympic gold is University of Florida swimming coach Gregg Troy, a short man with a bushy mustache and a persistent look of worry. A decade ago, Troy went to watch a potential recruit swim in the high school state championships. It was five minutes before the finals of the 500-meter freestyle, and Troy was talking with Steve Lochte, Ryan's dad and a prominent Florida swim coach. Troy looked around and didn't see Ryan.

"Where's your son?"

Steve smiled and took Troy through the locker room, across a hallway, and into a basketball gym. There was Ryan hoisting up threes. Steve got his attention.

"Ryan, you're up next."

His son made another shot and then slowly trotted to the sidelines, grabbed his cap and goggles, and made his way to his lane just as they called his name. Five minutes later, he won the race easily. Troy laughed.

"I want that guy."

Troy has been at Lochte's side ever since and will be the U.S. team's head swimming coach at the Olympics. Most mornings before dawn, you can find Lochte and dozens of University of Florida swimmers turning lap after lap after lap in an eight-lane pool. The scene conjures up images of an aquatic Orwellian dystopia. The morning I watched, Lochte looked miserable, sighing audibly between sets. Troy paced up the side watching his every stroke, occasionally shouting something like "You want to be good – it's not just about effort; it's about skill, technique." We sat in his office a few weeks later, and he explained the Tao of Ryan.

"The reality is that swimming is a very tedious sport," says Troy, a line he's unlikely to utter in the Gatorade commercial he appears in with Lochte. "It takes a lot of time. You're in a foreign element; you're facedown in the water, so it has a boredom factor. When you're 24 to 27 years old, like Ryan, and you're still doing the same thing, and it's boring, you can go to a softer approach, where you swim a little bit less and sprint a little bit more. We didn't feel that was going to put us where we needed to be. So you come up with new things."

Troy was specifically talking about Lochte's strength training for 2012, but he could have been describing the decade-long push and pull between Lochte's obvious dedication to training and Lochte's equal dedication to wrecking his body.

Where to start? Back in high school, Lochte fell out of a tree while playing hide-and-seek with his brother, busting up his shoulder before the 2002 Nationals. He wrecked his scooter shortly before the 2007 World Championships. He's broken his ankle skateboarding three times, and then sprained it chasing after his dog before the 2008 Olympic Trials. In Beijing, he missed a team meeting on the Olympic Village dos and don'ts and brushed his teeth with nonpotable water, resulting in days of the runs. He screwed up his knee in 2009 while break-dancing at his house, and then in 2011, he wrecked another scooter shortly before the World Championships in Shanghai. He's bounced back quickly from all his injuries, but he is sort of Mickey Mantle in goggles. Sure, Lochte is great – and in a non-Phelps era, he would be considered the best of his generation – but how great could he be if he didn't destroy his body on a semiannual basis?

Lochte says it doesn't work that way. I first met him at his Gainesville home on a spring afternoon shortly after he'd swum six miles. A surfer mannequin in an awake coma had replaced his usual Johnny Utah persona. He sat on his couch in a blue Gators T-shirt with his Doberman, Carter, curled up on his lap. There were a few ­moments when I thought he had nodded off midquestion.

Lochte shares his house with his younger brother Devon. In the driveway sat an Audi R8 with the license plate jeah7. A few weeks before, Lochte had taken the Audi out for a spin on the highway and got the Jeahmobile up to 175 mph.

"I just wanted to see what it felt like to go that fast," says Lochte. "When I slowed down, I thought I was going, like, 70 or 50, but I was still going 130. It was so smooth."

Troy told me that he and Steve Lochte, Ryan's dad, had talked Lochte out of skydiving last summer, but they can't keep an eye on him 24–7. Conventional wisdom dictates that if you've busted your bones for four years, you might refrain from life-threatening activities in the month leading up to the big show, but Lochte obviously disagrees.

"Something could go wrong driving to practice," he says. "I could get hurt in a million ways. You have to take that chance."

Well, actually, Ryan, there's this thing called risk management – but he doesn't want to hear it.

"Swimming doesn't define who I am," says Lochte, petting Carter, whom he named after rapper Lil Wayne's album. "I'm not going to give up anything for it. I'm still going to be exactly who I am and have fun with life. There's a lot of swimmers out there who make swimming their life, but for me, it's just a sport that I do."

Alas, that's a little like Patton saying World War II is just a war he does. In reality, Lochte is in the pool nine times a week for two to three hours at a time. There's multi­hour weight training three times a week and a strongman session on Sundays (more on that later). There's not a whole hell of a lot of time for other stuff. So Lochte gets his laughs where he can. His finger-giving in Gainesville wasn't an anomaly; if you watch a B-roll of any of Lochte's big races, he can be seen playing grab-ass or staring off into space just a few seconds before the most important races of his life.

"He doesn't stress – he's prepared, doesn't waste any energy," says Steve Lochte. "He's always been that way. He knows when to turn things on."

Lochte's parents served as his first swim coaches in Daytona Beach, where he grew up with two brothers and two sisters, all but one of whom swam competitively. When Ryan was a kid, Steve estimates he kicked his son out of two or three practices a week just for being a knucklehead. "He loved Skittles and Mountain Dew, so he was bouncing around a lot," recalls Steve.

Steve says Ryan was more into skateboarding and hoops until he was 14. Then father and son were driving home from a Junior Olympics meet where Ryan had finished second in points to one of his pals. The usually chatterbox Ryan just stared out the window. Steve asked his son what was the matter.

"I don't want to lose anymore."

From that point on, Lochte didn't lose very much. I asked Ryan who his swimming heroes were growing up, and he claimed he didn't have any. But a few minutes later, he mentioned Gary Hall Jr., an Olympic swimmer and multi–gold medalist known for affecting a boxer's persona before a big race. He was Lochte before Lochte.

"I really loved Gary's attitude – he worked hard at swimming, but at the same time, he was having fun," Lochte says. "He'd come out shadowboxing before he swam. That was cool."

Not everyone is convinced that Lochte's mellow vibe serves him well against ­Michael Phelps – Ivan Drago in trunks. Rowdy Gaines is an Olympic gold medalist and NBC commentator who has watched Lochte swim since Ryan was a boy. Gaines loves the swimmer and raves about how much he has done to bring young fans into the sport, but he doesn't completely buy his "no worries" approach to racing.

"I don't know any swimmer going into a race who doesn't get a burst of adrenaline from being on edge and ready to go," says Gaines. "I think it's a little bit of a defense mechanism for him if he doesn't win. I think losing bothers Ryan now in a way it didn't in 2008."

Lochte disagrees with the theory that he'd be even better if he worried more or didn't always bash up his body before big meets.

"If I didn't get in a scooter accident or get knee surgery, would I be the same person? I don't know. The way I swim my best is by having fun and just being relaxed, so I'm going to do all the other crazy stuff, and whatever happens, happens."

His idol, Hall, cautions against overanalyzing Lochte's slow-roll approach. "That's just the game face he wants you to see," says Hall. "That's just his psyche. No one gets up as early as he does and swims as much as he does because he doesn't care. Trust me, he cares."London will be Ryan Lochte's third Olympic rodeo. Athens in 2004 was a smooth maiden run; the then 20-year-old Lochte scored a relay gold and a silver behind Phelps in the 200-meter individual medley. Beijing was supposed to make him a rock star. It's easy to forget, after Phelps' eight gold medals, that Lochte was nearly a co-favorite with him heading into the Beijing Games. (The two shared a Men's Journal cover in August 2008.) Much of the pre-Olympic narrative revolved around the aquatic Odd Couple, Phelps giving rote answers at press conferences, not looking up from his BlackBerry, while Lochte regaled reporters with tales from his prankster life, detailing how he'd left a flaming bag of dog shit on his then girlfriend's doorstep and spent time running from the Gainesville cops after launching water balloons into the crowd at a frat party. He was happy to play the nut job to straight-arrow Phelps.

But China didn't go as planned. It's one thing to be a free spirit; it's another to miss a meeting where American Olympians were told not to brush their teeth with the water in the Olympic Village. Lochte did just that, and was puking and shitting for three days leading up to his first event. He compounded his error by hiding his illness from Troy and his father, losing a day of recovery when he could have been rehydrating with an IV.

His first event was the 400-meter individual medley, an event in which both he and Phelps had broken the world record at the Olympic Trials in Omaha. Troy and Lochte came up with a strategy: They would match Phelps stroke for stroke, even in the butterfly, a weaker stroke for Lochte. But a fatigued Lochte couldn't keep up and faded to bronze. He won gold as part of the 4x200 men's freestyle and then scored his first individual gold in the 200-meter backstroke, before falling to third behind Phelps in the 200-meter individual medley. In between races, he boasted to reporters he was subsisting on a diet of Big Macs and fries.

For most sane people, two golds and two bronzes would be the Olympics of a lifetime, but they were largely forgotten in the Phelps Games. While no one would cop to it directly, I got the feeling Team Lochte felt that opportunities had been left on the table. Today Troy says the two bronzes could have easily been silvers if they hadn't been swimming to win.

"We were in uncharted waters in the front end of the individual medley, going out so fast in the butterfly leg to be in the race," says Troy. "But it was the only way you were going to compete to be first, because Michael has no weaknesses. You have to go eyeball to eyeball with him, and going eyeball to eyeball with Michael probably left us a little short at the end."

Lochte claims he wasn't disappointed with Beijing, but that doesn't jibe with what happened when Team Lochte got back to Florida. Strength coach Matt DeLancey picked up a post-Olympics copy of ESPN the Magazine and saw a photo spread featuring Lochte. He was not amused.

"He'd put on 13 pounds of body fat in 10 days in Beijing, eating McDonald's," says DeLancey. "I opened it up, and he looked greasy and buttered up. I sent him an email: I took a picture of the 2007 Ryan Lochte who was all chiseled out and took the picture from ESPN, and said, 'Look, dude, when you have photos of yourself taken like this, and it's put out there in public, you don't just make yourself look bad; you make Coach Troy and myself look bad. We're the people who are in charge of that aspect of your career.' He got it."

DeLancey finally convinced Lochte to stop his daily Taco Bell runs and switch to lean meats and salads. A chef was hired. In addition to Lochte's swim regimen and regular weight training, DeLancey, a former strongman competitor, hosted grueling two-hour sessions on Sundays, during which Lochte tossed kegs, turned over giant tires, and dragged anchor chains through a Gainesville church parking lot. Troy began to see a difference.

"One thing we learned from 2008 is we weren't strong enough," says Troy. "We've worked on that for four years. The nutrition thing is a classic maturity issue. Those weren't things that he hadn't been told before – those were areas where he wasn't listening before, and he started to listen a little bit better."

Lochte the Athlete and Lochte the Dude clash from sentence to sentence in conversation. First, he told me Beijing happens – no big deal – but a little later, he admitted he's a different guy this time around.

"After Beijing, I said, 'Enough is enough.' I don't like losing. I started doing things differently than I'd done in the past. Instead of having one or two practices back to back that were great, I was having weeks and weeks that were really great."

The work paid off at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai. Lochte won four individual golds. In the 200-meter freestyle, Lochte defeated Phelps by a length. He beat Phelps again in the 200-meter individual medley event, setting a world-record time of 1:54.00. He dominated the 200-meter backstroke and the 400-meter individual medley, winning by seconds. Phelps ended up with two silvers and two golds. Things had changed. The Greatest Swimmer Ever was now chasing the Dude.

"The biggest difference between 2008 and now is that Ryan has confidence," says Hall. "He's not afraid of Phelps. That's big."I've seen some crazy, fucked-up things in my years as a reporter. To that list, I add the contents of Ryan Lochte's closet. Lochte sees himself as a bit of a style guy, so in the hope of rousting him out of his postswim torpor, I asked to see his closet. It was the size of a studio apartment. A vomit of multicolored jackets hung on hangers; dozens of sneakers, many in unspeakable shades, were stacked up to eye level.

I was trying to recover from bringing up a TMZ clip, in which the snarky program described Lochte's outfit – oversize baseball cap, T-shirt reading weirdo, and silver chains – as one worn by "the jerk who constantly guns his Jet Ski through the no-wake area at the lake." I asked if he'd dressed with, um, irony, and Lochte folded his arms across his chest. He didn't like that and pouted a little.

"They had no idea, and I'll just leave it at that. That's just me."

Like many famous people, Lochte fancies himself a player in another field where his enthusiasm might exceed his skill set. For years, much has been written about Lochte's fashion-forward sense. He's designed his own shoes for the swim deck, including an emerald green pair of sneakers that you could see the Situation rocking on an off night. But when a fashion crew caught up with him last year and asked him to identify a few basic fashion items – an ascot and a cowl-neck sweater – Lochte drew a blank.

That might be for the best. In his closet, he pulled something off a hanger. At first, I couldn't tell what it was or if it was alive. On closer inspection, it was a black jacket made out of some kind of shiny, petroleum-based material. It was something you might wear to protest a massive oil spill in the year 2525. Apparently, some fashion designers came to Gainesville, Ryan shared his vision, and this was the result.

"I knew I wanted a jacket that was shiny," says Lochte with pride, "but something that still looked more hip-hop-ish. They had these fabrics, and we put it together."

I asked him where he's worn the jacket. Ryan sheepishly shrugged.

"I actually have not worn that jacket yet. I'm still waiting."

I contemplate counseling him to leave the jacket in the closet, but it would do no good. Lochte has to let his freak flag fly. He listens to hip-hop 24–7, has a quote from Lil Wayne over his bed ("My flow is art, unique. My flow can part the sea. The only thing on a mind of a shark is eat. By any means, and you're just sardines"), and puts meeting the rapper at the top of his funky bucket list. It was Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy who inspired Ryan to start wearing a grill on the medal stand. The kids love it, the traditionalists not so much.

"Some of the tight-asses were like, 'Oh, what the heck, that's not good, that's not good sportsmanship,' " says Lochte with a roll of the eyes. "I don't show them off during the ceremony, anything like that, but it's, like, my personality coming out there. That's what the sport needs. If we want to make the sport bigger than it is now, we have to start showing our personalities."

There's long been a myth that Lochte and Phelps are good friends, but it's hard to see Doofus and the Robot hanging out (although it would make a great FX sitcom). At postswim press conferences, you see Phelps cracking up at Lochte, but they barely inhabit the same planet. Two years ago, Lochte left the management company that reps Phelps and is now represented by Wright Entertainment & Sports. So far, Ryan is pleased.

"I love my new management," says Lochte. "They do everything for me. I've got Gatorade. No other swimmer has ever been sponsored by Gatorade. They've gotten me so many deals not even Michael Phelps can get."

Lochte shoots down any suggestion that all this is like a Rocky movie, that he ends every training session with a blood-curdling scream of "Phelps!" "I've heard him mention Phelps' name exactly once in the past four years," says DeLancey. "It's not an issue."

After fanning the flames that he might try and pull a Phelps and swim in as many as nine events, Troy and Lochte now play that down.

"We will have to see how Ryan does at the trials and then take a hard look at the schedule," says Troy. "He has to qualify first."

Still, some events are a given: Lochte is world-class in the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke. He'll almost certainly swim both. He's the current world-record holder in the 200- and 400-meter individual medley, so put those down as definites. And he won't be able to resist going head-to-head against Phelps in the 200-meter freestyle, so that makes five. After that, it's a crapshoot, with relays and other races possibly taking Lochte up to nine gold-medal events. That, of course, would be one more than Phelps in 2008.

It's easy to predict how this will play out on television. NBC will do five minutes on establishment Phelps trying to recapture the Beijing magic by warding off the loosey-goosey Lochte. In reality, they'll probably square off head-to-head only in the 200-meter freestyle and 200-meter individual medley. Gaines says if Lochte is moving smoothly in his turns – a chronic Lochte weak spot – he'll have a good chance of beating the champ, but it will be by a fingertip either way. But it is Lochte's prerace mind-set that Gaines says will be most crucial.

"It doesn't matter if Ryan beat Phelps in Shanghai – the Olympics are different," says Gaines. "Phelps goes into the race with a half-second advantage just because he's Michael Phelps. Ryan is going to have to transform himself from that easygoing guy into a monster to beat him."I fly to Gainesville a second time, hoping to find a slightly more animated Lochte. And in the pool, I do. He poses for pictures and signs an issue of 'Vogue' with his picture on the cover. The mother of a teenage swimmer comes over with tears in her eyes and hugs Ryan: "Thank you for talking to my daughter yesterday – you made all the difference."

But then something goes wrong, at least for a moment. In the preliminary heat of the 100-meter backstroke, Lochte is expected to cruise. There are no serious Olympic contenders in attendance. But as the swimmers make the turn, the small crowd begins to buzz. Someone in the lane next to Lochte is giving him a serious challenge. Indeed, at the wall, 16-year-old Ryan Murphy beats Lochte by three-tenths of a second. It's not a big deal – Lochte was in the middle of tapering down his training before the Olympic Trials – but it reminds everyone that nothing is guaranteed this summer.

It feels like something has changed. Lochte comes over to chat, wearing a white T-shirt with SHHH on the front. In both our encounters, I'd catch a tantalizing glimpse of the old goofball Ryan, but then he'd put him back in the box. Now he's like a presidential candidate with a safe lead trying to run down the clock until Election Day. I ask him if losing at a nothing meet mattered.

"No, that kid swam the race of his life. I've just got to get better. But it's OK."

(The next day, Lochte's dad tells me his son was actually "very upset" about losing.)

We talk for a few more minutes while races go on below us. He continues to insist that his life isn't going to be defined by what happens in London.

"I could get one medal or 20, and I'll be happy."

Don't believe him.

Lochte gets up to leave, and for a second the mask falls. He groans as he stands up.

"God, my body is killing me. But I've got some time to get it right."

Suddenly, the face of the guy who wants you to think he doesn't give a shit is clouded with doubt. But as the kids and moms surround him again, the Lochte smile comes back. He wanders off, young swimmers trailing behind him. Ryan Lochte still looks like he doesn't have a care in the world.

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