Ryan Lochte's Mellow Gold
Credit: Photograph by Jake Chessum

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.