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."