Ryan Lochte, 5 wild years on from Rio, now one swim away from 5th Olympics

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OMAHA, NEBRASKA - JUNE 17: Ryan Lochte of the United States competes in a preliminary heat for the Men’s 200m individual medley during Day Five of the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at CHI Health Center on June 17, 2021 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Ryan Lochte swims his preliminary heat at U.S. Olympic swimming trials at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

In the five years since Ryan Lochte, perhaps the second-most accomplished swimmer ever, became most famous for something other than swimming — since the scandal that sent him to the front page of newspapers worldwide, and to the cover of the Encyclopedia of White American Male Entitlement — Lochte has, in his own words, been to “the very bottom.”

There was the suspension for his conduct in Rio. Then another one for doping. There was rehab for alcohol abuse after Lochte found himself "headed to a dark, dark place."

Through it all, there was a goal. Over the past two years, Lochte hunkered down in Gainesville, Florida, grinding through workouts, chasing a fifth Olympics. And after Thursday, he's 200 meters away.

Lochte sped through prelims of the 200 individual medley at U.S. trials in Omaha, Nebraska, swimming the second-fastest time in morning heats. In semis at night, he struggled but advanced to Friday's final (9 p.m. ET, NBC) in sixth place out of eight.

The top two finishers Friday will qualify for Tokyo.

Lochte's last shot: The 200 IM

Lochte, 36, entered his fifth Olympic trials with one real shot to make the team. The 200 IM was the event that first sent him to the Games in 2004, when Michael Phelps and he went 1-2 at trials and again a month later in Athens. It's the event he'd ultimately win at four consecutive World Championships, setting world records along the way. 

Lochte qualified for Olympics in other events over the years — the 400 IM, the 200 backstroke, the 200 freestyle. At his peak in 2012, he swam four individual races and won five medals in London. But it was the 200 IM — one 50-meter pool length each of freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly — that got him to a fourth Olympics in Rio.

And it was the 200 IM he focused on this week. Lochte either scratched or failed to make it out of prelims in the other events he'd entered at trials.

If Lochte were to qualify, he'd become the oldest American male swimmer to make an Olympic team. To make it, he'll have to stave off challengers more than 10 years his junior. Michael Andrew, a 22-year-old former teen phenom, went 1:56.25 in prelims, more than two seconds ahead of Lochte's 1:58.48 in a neighboring lane. Andrew then flirted with Lochte's world record in the semis, throwing up a 1:55.26, the fastest time in the world this year. He's a favorite to claim one of the U.S.'s two berths in the event in Tokyo.

The other spot is very much up for grabs. Five swimmers — Carson Foster (19), Chase Kalisz (27), Sam Stewart (24), Kieran Smith (21) and Andrew Seliskar (24) — were less than a second behind Lochte in prelims. Foster, Kalisz, Smith and Stewart were then faster than him in the semis, and Lochte admitted afterward that his race — which he completed in 1:58.65 — "was not a good one." But the margins are thin. He'll have a chance Friday.

At a pre-trials news conference last weekend, Lochte was asked what would qualify as success for him in Omaha. "Success would be making the Olympic team, and not just making the Olympic team, but going to Tokyo and getting another medal," he said. He'll have to improve upon Thursday's time significantly to do that.

"But also ... there's two sides to that," he continued. "Just being here, and giving it one more shot, I feel like is success too."

Ryan Lochte's reformed life

Lochte says he has changed over the five years since Rio. He hasn't completely ditched the rock star persona that endeared him to sponsors and fans alike — and that then led to his downfall. But, as he said last weekend: "There's more to life than just being a rock star." In the months before trials, he granted several interviews, acknowledging his faults and selling himself as a reformed "family man."

The reform began in earnest in 2018. Lochte's first suspension was for his Rio antics. USA Swimming and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee banned him for 10 months. Around a year after his reinstatement, he was banned another 14 months by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for receiving an illegal IV infusion. His own Instagram post had outed him.

A few months into that second suspension, Lochte found himself in a familiar place: TMZ headlines. He'd drunkenly tried to kick down his own hotel room door around 3 a.m. in Southern California. He soon admitted he had a "serious" problem. He'd been drinking heavily his entire adult life. At times, in some circles, he'd been celebrated for it. Now, he sought treatment. He spent six weeks in an outpatient program. He didn't give up alcohol entirely, but he slowed down. And he learned about himself.

Per his own telling, he soon reprioritized his life. He dedicated himself to his wife, Kayla Rae Reid, a model; and to their two children, Caiden (now 4 years old) and Liv (2). Lochte spends most of his non-swimming time with them, at their new Florida home, running around the backyard or living room, his life still chaotic but now in a much different way.

Lochte on Rio 'wake-up call' 

After Thursday night's swim, a swim he admittedly "messed up," Lochte made a beeline for the kids. Caiden and Liv – who turned 2 on Thursday – were decked out in matching stars-and-stripes outfits. Lochte hoisted Liv into his arms.

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The entire Lochte clan will be at the CHI Health Center on Friday night for Lochte's final shot at a final shot in Tokyo. But no matter what happens ... "Outside of the pool, I am successful," Lochte said last weekend. "I have a family now, which is the best thing ever. So, to me, I'm winning. Swimming is just a cherry on top."

When asked to reflect on Rio, he said, in part: "It needed to happen because everything that was happening in my life, it was just going down a dark hole." He said he's a believer in the mantra that "everything happens for a reason." This, he said, "was someone saying, 'You need to wake up and smell the coffee.'

"So, I mean, I had a wake-up call. And now I'm the happiest person ever."

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