LONDON — The way Ryan Lochte sees it, the Olympics is just another swim meet by a different name. Same pool, same events, same people on the blocks. “It’s basically the same as the world championships,” he figures. “No matter what, when I step on the blocks I am going to win. That’s how I feel.”
Just because an entire planet is watching him work this week won’t change that. And now that Lochte has redirected the spotlight from Michael Phelps to himself with one monster swim on the opening night of the Games, it doesn’t mean he’s going to be a different guy when they snuff out the flame a week from Sunday. “Swimming doesn’t define who I am,” says Lochte, who’ll go skateboarding through the Olympic village an hour before a medal final if the spirit moves him. “It’s just something that I like to do. I’m OK at it.”
Maybe Lochte can recite his medal collection from memory or maybe he can’t. After Saturday’s triumph in the 400-meter individual medley, which he won by the biggest margin (3.68 seconds) in Games history, and his silver from Sunday’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay, his count stands at four golds, two silvers, and two bronzes plus 17 world medals, a dozen of them gold. By the time his plate has been cleared here, he likely will have four more golds from Monday’s 200 freestyle, Tuesday’s 4 x 200 freestyle relay, and Thursday’s 200 backstroke and 200 individual medley.
While that undoubtedly would make the 27-year-old Lochte the swimmer of the quadrennium, he won’t claim that it would make him the greatest of all time. That distinction he believes belongs to Phelps, his archrival, good buddy, and cards partner who went 8 for 8 in 2008. “He is the best swimmer ever,” acknowledges Lochte.
Until the 400 IM, which Phelps had won in Athens and Beijing, Lochte hadn’t beaten him at Olympus. Since Lochte has to swim the 200 back before his rematch with a fresh Phelps in the 200 IM, he may never beat him again since Phelps has vowed that he’ll retire after these Games. But no matter how the rest of his races here turn out, Lochte plans on continuing on to Rio de Janeiro and 2016. “I told myself I’ll quit swimming once I stop having fun, and right now I’m having a blast,” he says. “I’m not thinking about the money or medals or anything else. I’m just having fun racing.”
Nobody on the planet seems to have more, regardless of results. When the French ran him down on the anchor leg in the relay, Lochte was as sanguine as he’d been in victory. “Right after I get out of the pool, after that race, I’m back to being relaxed Ryan,” he says. “I’m not thinking about that race. I’m thinking about the next race and I keep moving forward.”
Lochte’s low-stress approach helped him get through the Clash of the Titans buildup that followed his five gold medals at the world meet in Shanghai, where he beat Phelps twice. “I don’t mind all the hoorah that people talk about me and Michael because honestly it goes through one ear and out the other,” he says. “I don’t pay attention. I’m lost in my own world and I just stay there.”
Ryan World is free and easy, where everyone wears emerald rhinestone-studded sneakers, listens to Lil Wayne, and says “Jeah!”, an all-purpose affirmative. “He’s so genuine,” says Natalie Coughlin, who has been Lochte’s teammate at three Games. “He knows exactly who he is.”
Except for abandoning his fast-food diet and toughening up his workouts since Beijing, Lochte sports the same persona he’s had since he was swimming for Florida’s varsity. Living the fully-chlorinated life never has been his style. “I’m not afraid to go out there and show everybody who I am,” he says. “I mean, you get a lot of swimmers that are just straight-arrow — eat, swim, sleep. But that’s definitely not the way I am.”
So Lochte has enjoyed his Olympic-year celebrity, which got him on the cover of Vogue between soccer player Hope Solo and tennis player Serena Williams. “It’s nice not to do a photo shoot in a Speedo,” he says. “I’m actually in clothes. Suits and stuff.”
When Lochte pulls on the Speedo, though, he’s all business, which is why he relishes his showdowns with Phelps. “I love racing against him,” he says. “It’s fun. He will go toe-to-toe with you until the end and that’s excitement for me.”
Phelps may be Lochte’s spades partner when they play against teammates, but he never has given him quarter when they’re in adjacent lanes. “When we step on the pool deck, that’s our battlefield,” says Phelps, “and we do everything we can to try to get our hands on the wall first.”
That may have been why Lochte ended up with bronzes in the two individual medleys in Beijing, where Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh came between them. “It cost him a couple of silver medals,” reckons US men’s coach Gregg Troy, who coaches Lochte in Florida. “He was racing Michael. You focus on one person, you make a big mistake.”
This time, Lochte was so far ahead that he never saw Phelps, who was laboring in an outside lane after barely qualifying for the final. It was the first time since Sydney a dozen years ago that Phelps failed to make the award stand, and Lochte allowed that it was weird not to see him alongside. “When we were back in the massage area he came back to me, he congratulated me, and said, ‘Way to go,’ ” said Lochte. “He was definitely proud of me. I know that he was a little bit upset, but proud of me.”
On Sunday night, they were teammates again on the 4 x 100 relay. On Tuesday, they’ll be on the 4 x 200, going for their third gold medal together. On Thursday, they’ll be rivals again in the 200 IM. “We’ve got a great relationship,” says Lochte. “We’ve been swimming against each other for eight years. We have probably one of the best rivalries in swimming ever. I’m happy to be in the same race as him and from the same country. Win or lose, at the end of the day, we’re still friends.”
Each has pushed the other to greatness, which is why Lochte will miss Phelps when he moves on to terra firma. “For me to be in the same era as him and be in the same race events as him and being able to race him to the finish, it’s awesome,” he says. “I love it.”
That’s why Lochte wouldn’t think of scratching the 200 IM, even though he’ll barely have warmed down from the 200 back by the time he has to take the blocks.
“Some people may say you’re crazy for going back-to-back events, but you know what, it’s fun for me,” Lochte says. “If I win, I win; if I don’t, I don’t. It’s not the end of the world. As long as I’m having fun doing what I love to do, I’m going to keep doing this.”John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.