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Opinion: Ryan Lochte, trying to qualify for fifth Olympics at 36, says 'rock star' days behind him

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OMAHA, Neb. — Ryan Lochte, one of the country's most famous and infamous swimmers, showed up in a familiar spot at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials Friday: at a microphone, on a dais, talking to reporters.

Now 36 and attempting to make his fifth Olympic team, Lochte was willing to talk about almost anything, except for the most pressing question any prospective Olympian will receive in the run-up to the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics: Are you vaccinated?

"That's a personal question, so I'm not going to answer that,” Lochte said.

If that means he is not vaccinated, he is taking quite a risk. Unvaccinated athletes at the week-long trials, which begin Sunday, can be subject to contact tracing that could potentially knock them out of their events. Vaccinated athletes are exempt from contact tracing.

What exactly Lochte, the winner of 12 Olympic medals, plans to swim here and how he will do are topics that also lead down a path of uncertainty. He is entered in several events, but his only realistic, if slight, chance to qualify for the Olympics is in the men’s 200 individual medley next Thursday and Friday, a race in which he is seeded fifth. Only two U.S. swimmers will qualify for the Olympics in the event.

Ryan Lochte set the world record in the 200 IM a decade ago. Here he's shown at a meet in April in Mission Viejo, California.
Ryan Lochte set the world record in the 200 IM a decade ago. Here he's shown at a meet in April in Mission Viejo, California.

Interestingly, he still holds the world record in the 200 IM at 1:54.00, set nearly 10 years ago with a time more than 3½ seconds faster than what he swam to make these trials. Time does have a way of marching on.

But the Lochte story is about so much more than what happens in the water. Since he was last in Omaha at the Olympic trials in 2016, he has been suspended twice: once for creating an international incident at the Rio Olympics by claiming he had been robbed at gunpoint when in fact he and three other U.S. male swimmers urinated outside a gas station, and the second time for a doping violation after he received a prohibited intravenous injection.

Asked to look back five years to one of the most embarrassing episodes ever for a U.S. Olympian on foreign soil, Lochte said, “You know, Rio, I try not to dwell on the past and I think that's one of the reasons why I'm here standing in front of you guys, because no matter in life how many times you get knocked down, it's how you get up that defines you as a person.

“I'm a fighter, and I got up and I kept moving forward, setting new goals in my life, in the pool and out of the pool. I mean, 2016 happened, and I can't regret those things that happened because it helped shape me who I am today and I am the happiest person I've ever been in my entire life and I'm doing what I love to do. … Everything happens for a reason. It needed to happen because everything that was happening in my life, it was just going down a dark hole, and it was someone saying, you need to wake up and smell the coffee.”

He continued: “There's more to life than just being a rock star, having that rock star persona. So, I mean, I had a wake-up call and now I'm the happiest person ever.”

His longtime coach, Gregg Troy, has seen it all from Lochte.

“There's a little more maturity,” he said. “Safe to say Ryan hasn't always made all the best choices, but he's learned from those choices. He's much more mature in what he's done. That's given me an ability to talk with him even more.”

Because he is back for what surely is his last hurrah, Lochte was asked how he will define success at these trials. After giving the requisite answer about making the Olympic team and winning another medal in Tokyo, he offered perspective that a younger Ryan Lochte never could have mustered.

“Just being 36 and just everything that I've dealt with throughout my entire life and the training and everything, and just being here, and giving it one more shot, I feel like is success too. Outside of the pool, I am successful. I mean, I’ve got great sponsors. I have a family now, which is the best thing ever.

“So, to me, I'm winning. Swimming is just the cherry on top.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ryan Lochte, trying to make 5th Olympic team at 36, needed wakeup call