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

Related Stories:
The Ryan Lochte Short List
Ryan Lochte Photo Gallery (Web-exclusive photos by Jake Chessum)
Michael Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte
Get Into Olympic Shape With Michael Phelps