Ryan Lochte, the swimming megastar who throughout the 21st century has been equal parts controversial and successful, came up short in his bid for a fifth Olympics on Friday night.
Lochte, 36, finished seventh in the 200-meter individual medley at U.S. swimming trials in Omaha, Nebraska. Only the top two — Michael Andrew and Chase Kalisz — could qualify to swim the event in Tokyo.
The race represented Lochte's best and last shot to make the U.S. team. Throughout the week, he either scratched or failed to advance past prelims in other events. He'd focused on the 200 IM, the race that first made him an Olympian 17 years ago, a race that he still owns the world record.
At 200 IM prelims Thursday morning, Lochte posted the second-fastest time and announced himself as a contender. At semifinals that evening, he placed sixth, good enough to reach Friday's final. He knew that swim was "not a good one," and vowed to improve 24 hours later.
But the young limbs in neighboring lanes had too much speed. And Lochte slowed, to 1:59.67 seconds, more than 4 seconds behind Andrew and 2.7 seconds behind Kalisz. He touched the wall, and emerged with matter-of-fact disappointment on his face.
"I really wanted to be on that Olympic team," Lochte said at a post-race news conference. He felt like he "let everyone down."
End of the road for Lochte?
When asked after the race whether it represented the end of his competitive swimming career — the second-most decorated career in swimming history, one that included 12 Olympic medals and 18 world championships — Lochte's answers were vague.
"This ain't the end of the road," he told NBC's Michele Tafoya on the pool deck, but then seemed to suggest the rest of the road could be outside the water. "There's a lot more I wanted to accomplish in the sport of swimming, whether it's in the pool or outside the pool, making the sport of swimming bigger. That's my biggest goal."
Later, he talked himself into a firmer answer: "I don't know if this will be my last race. I don't think so. Actually, I can say it won't be."
"I'll quit swimming when I stop having fun," he continued. "I love this sport."
He also spoke about "what [he's] going to miss most," and fought through the type of emotion that accompanies the end of an era.
Lochte said all of this after embracing Andrew, 22, a former teen phenom and perhaps the next dominant American male swimmer. Later, Lochte was told that Andrew and 25-year-old Olympic champ Ryan Murphy had said they looked up to him. Tears welled in Lochte's eyes.
"It means a lot," he said. "Honestly more than winning a gold medal."
Ryan Lochte's road since Rio
Lochte had been to "the very bottom" in the five years since Rio. At those Games, he infamously lied about being robbed at gunpoint. USA Swimming and the U.S. Olympic Committee suspended him for 10 months.
Lochte apologized, but didn't exactly mellow upon returning from Rio. Finally, in October of 2018, he admitted he had a "serious" problem with alcohol. A few months into another suspension — this one stemming from an illegal IV that Lochte himself had posted about on Instagram — he was caught on camera drunkenly trying to kick in his own hotel room door at 3 a.m. Shortly thereafter, he sought treatment. He spent six weeks in an outpatient rehab program.
Lochte didn't give up alcohol entirely, but learned about himself in those weeks, and slowed down in the months that followed. Per his own telling, he reprioritized his life. "There's more to life than just being a rock star," he said this past weekend, recalling his realization years earlier.
He dedicated himself to his wife, Kayla Rae Reid, a model; and to their two children, Caiden (now 4 years old) and Liv (2). He moved back to Gainesville, Florida, his old college stomping grounds, and steeled himself for grueling training sessions that, he hoped, could get him back to his Olympic best.
He came pretty darn close. But in Friday's final, he fell behind Andrew over the first 50, then behind others over the middle 100, and finished well off the pace.
And so, for the first time in over two decades — for the first time since Bill Clinton was President of the United States, and the country was only involved in one war, and Madonna's "Music" was the hottest song in America — the Summer Olympics won't feature Ryan Lochte.
"But," he said Friday night, "this is not the last you're going to see of me."
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