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."