COLUMBIA — U.S. Olympian Ryan Lochte is something of a contradiction.
Wearing a black t-shirt that says “Go big or go home” as he prepares to swim the 100-meter backstroke at the Missouri Grand Prix, Lochte appears competitive. That is, until the shirt comes off and he steps to the edge of the pool. Just when you think he’s focusing on the event, Lochte starts goofing around with Florida teammate Rex Tullius, playfully punching each other and laughing.
College — Graduated from the University of Florida in 2007 with a degree in sports management.
Family — Parents Steve and Ileana Lochte; two older sisters, Kristin and Megan Lochte; two younger brothers, Devon and Brandon Lochte
Hobbies — Playing basketball, skateboarding and surfing
Musician — Lil Wayne
Summer activity — Beach volleyball
Movie — "Cheech and Chong: Up in Smoke"
TV show — The Simpsons
“The last thing I’m thinking about is the race itself,” Lochte said. “I could be in the Olympics and no one wants to joke around, but I’m probably just thinking I can’t wait to get back and have some pizza. I just like having fun.”
There lies the contradiction. Lochte, 25, is known for his laid-back attitude, but at his core he is a competitor.
“I’m a racer. I hate to lose," he said. "When you get to a certain level anyone hates to lose.”
On Saturday, Lochte placed second in the 100-meter backstroke and sixth in the 50-meter freestyle. Although it was not his best performance, he was happy with the results given that he is coming off a long break after knee surgery.
The story of how he tore a ligament in his knee is reflective of his personality. Hanging out with a group of friends and watching music videos in his living room, Lochte started break-dancing. It didn’t take long for him to feel a pop in his knee. After icing it, he went out dancing because it wasn’t going to ruin his night. A couple weeks later, Lochte found out he couldn’t do the breaststroke and could barely walk. An MRI and a few X-rays led to a surgery to repair his medial collateral ligament.
“I should’ve made up a better excuse for it, like I got hit by a car or saved a child,” he joked.
Lochte took extra time off from competing to heal. He said the reason he is competing in Columbia this weekend is to test his knee and to get back in the swing of things.
His recovery regimen was tailored to work his upper body while he nursed his injury. The time he spent building strength in his arms showed as he did a few warm-up laps in the pool.
University of Florida coach Martyn Wilby can attest to that. Lochte’s coach for the past seven years, he said the National Team member’s work ethic is second to none.
“When he’s focused there’s no better athlete on a regular basis,” Wilby said. “He just likes to race. That transfers not only in a meet like this but it transfers in practice.”
In the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Lochte was a double gold medalist in the 200-meter backstroke and as a member of the 800-meter U.S. freestyle relay team. He also claimed two bronze medals in the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medley races. Wilby was there when Lochte and fellow Olympian Michael Phelps competed together.
“It’s incredible because you have two people who are obviously the best in the world who both love to race,” he said. “Any time those two are going head-to-head it’s a great race.”
This is Lochte’s fourth year competing in the Missouri Grand Prix, but that doesn’t mean he’s been exploring the Columbia area. When asked what his favorite local staple is, Lochte replied, “McDonald’s.” He admits that he grabs fast food to take back to the hotel when there are breaks in the day. But, he adds that Columbia consistently attracts a high level of competitive swimmers.
Two minutes after Lochte gets out of the pool from his event, he is swarmed by a group of girls who want photographs with him. His chest is still heaving as he catches his breath, but he doesn’t complain. Signing autographs and taking pictures is what he loves most about swimming, aside from racing. Earlier in the day during prelims, one fan asked for his autograph. The result was a domino effect. Spectators in the bleachers flock to Lochte, asking him to sign cell phones, swim caps and even headphones.
He is easily the most recognizable athlete in Columbia this weekend. When he is introduced before an event, cameras start flashing so much you’d think you were on the red carpet of a movie premiere. As he dives in the pool and begins the backstroke, the crowd cheers him on. Girls screaming “Go Ryan!” is the most audible noise in the stuffy pool area.
Even with the attention, which arguably is heightened because Phelps isn’t here, Lochte doesn’t let it go to his head.
“I don’t really look at it as Michael isn’t here, so I’m the hot shot,” he said. “I’m just here to have fun, sign a couple of autographs.”