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."