At the Aquatic Centre at the University of British Columbia, at lunch time midweek, one end of the pool is occupied by a small group of older people in a water aerobics class. Adjacent, there’s lane swimming, the slow and steady pace of recreational swimmers and their breaststrokes or freestyle.
Poolside stands Ryan Lochte, in a long-sleeve cotton white top, maroon knee-length shorts and white canvas sneakers.
He is in town as he resumes a life in swimming, with an eye on this summer’s world championships in Barcelona, and the next Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, set to compete at UBC this weekend in six races at the annual Mel Zajac Jr. International meet.
But he is hardly just a swimmer any more. While Lochte is one of the great athletes in the history of the sport, having won 11 Olympic medals – five golds – over the past three Summer Games, he has become something of a 21st century caricature, a one-man Internet meme.
The easy-going 28-year-old American, who splashed, mostly naked, on magazine covers last year, from Time to Vogue, is an easy mark, starting with the widespread mockery of his staccato and often-bumbling way with words, his dumb-jock comportment, and his at-times garish style – such as a custom-made $25,000 red, white and blue, diamond and ruby encrusted tooth grille he sported in London.
His bomb of a reality TV show, What Would Ryan Lochte Do?, on the E! network, has not helped.
The show is boring at best, as cameras rolled for eight weeks earlier this year and captured little of interest. The program debuted in April and its ratings have been, in the words of The Hollywood Reporter, “paltry.” Heavily promoted, E! believed Lochte’s “utterly unique and unaffected approach to life,” along with his “endearing personality” and his good looks, would score.
It did not. In the first week, the show drew 807,000 viewers, which ranked 27th out of 33. After a terrible start, ratings collapsed. The latest episode – the fifth of eight – pulled in 371,000 viewers, good for 31st out of 32 shows.
All through, however, Lochte remains a genuinely relaxed, happy, and seemingly nice guy. The commotion that surrounds him – online at least, since no-one really took notice of him at UBC – seems like the nearby-but-faraway cheering a swimmer might hear or sense as he rips through the water at speeds greater than any person in history.
Lochte, who had always been a second-string star to 18-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, still holds the world record in the 200-metre individual medley.
Reflecting on the past year, in a quiet 1-on-1 interview, Lochte speaks as well as any average person, engaged but employing the usual likes and ums most people use. But he hardly comes off as a halfwit or the persona that has become his brand of a sort.
“It might all stop,” Lochte said, without a hint of regret, of the swirl of B-list fame he encountered in and after the London Games. “We’ll see what happens. As far as I’m concerned, I’m an Olympic athlete right now, I’m training for Rio.”
In 2016, Lochte will have just turned 32, ancient for a swimmer. He has repeatedly declared his intentions to be there. Asked whether he is a realistic medal contender, he almost shrugs, and half-laughs.
“I hope so. I mean, I’m not swimming just to swim.”
Lochte – who earned an estimated $2.3-million (U.S.) in the year around the Olympics – insists, in his casual way, he is not obsessed with his sport and cites basketball as his favourite pastime, and outlets such as fashion as major interests. Yet even as Phelps leaves competition behind, Lochte forges on, as the son of two swimming coaches has always found a salve in the pool.
“There’s just something about the water, that once I step foot in it, everything just kind of disappears,” Lochte said. “I’m just one with the water. And that’s why I’ve been doing it for so long.”
As for his brush with celebrity, he’d be keen to film a second season of his show but knows that’s probably not happening, given ratings.
“If not,” he said, “I can tell my kids one day that I had a reality TV show.”