EAST MEADOW, N.Y. – The line was 200 deep at 3:45 p.m. Friday, and it only got longer as the afternoon wore on.
It snaked alongside the Nassau County Aquatic Center and led to a red tent. Beneath it, sitting in a gray plastic chair with a stack of Sharpies to his left, Ryan Lochte smiled and signed autographs and posed for pictures and small-talked for 105 minutes without cessation. Stars-and-stripes kickboards, swim caps, T-shirts, magazine covers, glossy photos – most if it provided by his new swim apparel sponsor, Tyr – were signed in tireless succession.
American pariah? No. Not here. Not now. To them, Ryan Lochte remains an American hero and American celebrity.
The whole thing was only supposed to last an hour, but Lochte was the essence of mellow accommodation, going 45 minutes of overtime and making sure every beaming child and giggling woman had his or her moment with him.
“Oh my gosh, he’s so cute!” gushed Victoria Wu, who brought her two children to get pictures with Lochte. “He’s so cute!”
“And he swims fast,” said her friend, Cecilia Chau, who also brought her two children with her for the event.
“Yeah,” Wu allowed, before getting back to her original point. “Nice body.”
Good looks and 12 Olympic medals can go a long way in America. In a land of second chances, Ryan Lochte clearly will be afforded one by the swimming community.
“It’s amazing,” Lochte said of the turnout. “One of the reasons why I still swim is for them, to give back to the fans. It definitely makes you honored and humbled to have this.”
A year after he seemingly threw away all that goodwill and golden-boy status with a Rio de Janeiro debacle of Olympic proportion, Lochte is back. On Saturday he will swim the 100 backstroke at the U.S. Open Championships, and on Sunday he will swim the 200-meter individual medley – the first meet he is eligible for following his 10-month suspension by the U.S. Olympic Committee. He missed the U.S. national championships in June and FINA World Championships last month, the two biggest events of 2017, but his comeback from chlorine exile is on now.
And if Friday afternoon is any indication, a great many Americans are more than willing to move past the bizarre and convoluted international incident that occurred in Brazil.
“After Rio, he was devastated,” said Lochte’s father, Steven. “It was devastating to me after everything came out – that he was robbed, that there was not vandalism to the bathroom, that he didn’t lie. Nobody has come out and made a public apology to him, because they can’t.
“So to see this [crowd of fans] is a real satisfaction. It’s a great positive toward his heart, a rebuilding of his confidence.”
And a rebuilding of his brand. In a quadrennial sport that is even more dependent upon stars than the NBA, even a 33-year-old Lochte absolutely is still a marketable commodity.
USA Swimming, which was thoroughly disgusted with Lochte last August, had his face on the front of its website this week as the main attraction at the U.S. Open. The apparel tent outside the aquatic center featured “Lochte 17” jerseys. And local organizers were doing their best to sell tickets based on Lochte’s appearance.
Is he a more reliable pitchman now than last year, when at least four major sponsors dumped him in the wake of the Rio incident? The family says yes, and points to a tiny yet huge reason why: two-month-old Caiden Zane Lochte.
The two-month-old boy, whom Lochte fathered with fiancée Kayla Rae Reid, has described as the grounding influence the famously immature Lochte needed.
“My life has completely changed,” he said. “I guarantee you, I’m a different human being now.”
It might be difficult to envision the star of a reality show based on his own airheaded nature in the pater familias role. But Steven Lochte wants you to believe it.
“He has completely grown up,” Steven Lochte said. “He is 110 percent focused on his family. It’s a new beginning. He’s got a fire in his belly like I’ve never seen before.
“He’s got a determination to prove to his son, not so much anybody else, what he does. Family first, swimming is second, third is swimming and fourth is swimming.”
Steven Lochte stopped well short of LaVar Ball paternal braggadocio, but he is bullish on Ryan’s swimming future – even at a geriatric age for the sport.
“I’m anxious for 2020,” he said. “I’m anxious for him to show it still can be done, with heart and dedication, to show the rest of the world.”
Whatever proving Lochte can do in the pool isn’t likely to begin here. He’s far from peak shape, and his appearance here might be timed as much as anything to secure a spot on the 2017-18 USA National Team – and the monetary stipends that go with it.
There isn’t much reason to expect swimming greatness right now from Lochte. Or, perhaps, ever again.
But he still can attract a crowd, draw sponsors and make the media pay attention. Ryan Lochte is going to get a second chance from the public, and we’ll see whether he’s still a fast enough swimmer to make it last.