WRITTEN BY SHARON ROBB
Ryan Lochte is the first to admit he wasn’t always a fast swimmer.
He said it took time, patience and hard work before he turned the corner and became a two-time Olympian and world record holder.
“The thing that got me going was myself,” said Lochte during a recent visit to Fort Lauderdale.
“When I was growing up, we would go to JOs every year and I would always get beat every time in every race.”
He used those disappointments as motivation.
“When I was around 13 or 14, I told my dad that it was never going to happen again,” Lochte said. “From then on I was more focused in practice. I committed myself to swimming fully and kept going from there.
“Now, when I talk to young kids at swim clinics or schools, the main thing I want them to understand is that to get where I am at, you don’t have to be fast right away,” Lochte said.
“Growing up I was really bad. I was never the fastest swimmer. I had to work at that. I just want them to know that you can always get better no matter what. You don’t have to be always great to become great.”
One of the early turning points in the Canandaigua, N.Y.-born Lochte’s swimming career came when his father, Steve, a club and college swim coach moved his family from Rochester, N.Y. to Daytona Beach because swimming was more popular in Florida.
Lochte flourished in the Sunshine State. He was a solid club and high school swimmer at Spruce Creek High School in Port Orange. But he added that he wasn’t the best swimmer coming out of high school and not heavily recruited.
University of Florida only offered him a scholarship after two other swimmers turned the school down.
“No one believed in me back then, but I knew what I could do, I believed in me,” said Lochte, a 24-time collegiate All-American.
Despite success during his teen years, Lochte knew there was more work to do in college if he was going to take it to the next level.
“It wasn’t until my freshman year in college that I felt like I could do something in this sport,” Lochte said.
“After my freshman year, I won my first big international meet at the Pan American Games and broke the Pan Am record in the morning. No one expected me to be close to that. From then on I thought, ‘wow, I did something that not many people can do.’
“Then my sophomore year I won NCAAs for my first time. From then on I was like ‘I can do this.’
Lochte, now 25, has compiled an impressive resume in individual medley, backstroke and freestyle events.
The three-time Olympic gold medalist and 12-time Olympic and world medalist won an Olympic gold medal in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay and silver medal in the 200-meter individual medley at the 2004 Games.
Four years later in Beijing, he took gold in the 200-meter backstroke and 4×200 free relay and bronze medals in the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys.
“Every great swim I had I kept feeding off it,” Lochte said. “I kept on getting better and better. I kept reminding myself I had that first great race and I could do even better. I kept on going for the 2004 Olympics and kept going after that.”
Lochte never loses sight of what keeps him in swimming.
“When I was a little kid I was just having fun,” Lochte said. “I remember coming to meets and getting a bunch of icees. My mouth would turn blue and I was just having fun with all my friends. I am kind of still the same way.
“The most important thing is to have fun. I tell kids for me having fun is racing. I race in practice, I race at meets. Everything I do I try to make it a race because that’s fun for me and I love it. That’s why I keep swimming.”
Losing also motivates him in the pool.
“I am very competitive, I hate to lose,” he said. “If I do lose I lose, but I am not going to crawl in my own cubby hole and cry or anything like that. I am just going to forget about it and move on.”
From late August to October, Lochte used his down time to travel, model, make appearances and speak at swim clinics. He has a contract with Ford Modeling Agency.
“Modeling is something different,” Lochte said. “I am used to modeling in my Speedo and comfortable with that, but now I am doing real business clothes and suits. It is different. My main thing I want to do is design my own clothing line. It would be some kind of business suit with a twist to it, like a rock star-surfer laidback business suit.
“Swimming is always going to be the priority until I’m done. That’s just how I want it to be. I am just doing the modeling thing and other stuff on the side.”
In November 2009, Lochte underwent knee surgery to repair damage to his medial collateral ligament, an injury suffered while dancing with friends.
“I should have made up a better excuse for it, like I got hit by a car or saved a child,” Lochte smiled.
During his recovery, he worked on his upper body. That added strength showed when he got back in the pool.
“I was doing a lot of upper body lifting in the weight room, bench pressing, dumb bells and strongman work,” Lochte said. “I was trying to get my upper body stronger because I couldn’t do anything with my legs.
“Once I got into the pool, I started slimming down but still had all that muscle. I think that’s what helped me. I am a lot stronger in the water. A couple of coaches came up to me at a meet and said ‘wow, we know you’re not going best times, but you look a lot stronger in the water.
“Now that my knee is back in shape and I am getting stronger when everything comes together I am really excited to see what I can do this summer. I think it’s going to be good.”
Lochte has already committed to training for the 2012 London Olympics. He said he could swim as many as nine events.
“I am not done with my swimming career. There is so much more I want to accomplish that I know I can. It’s just a matter of time. I think 2012 is where it’s most likely going to happen.”
Lochte will probably lock horns with U.S. teammate Michael Phelps. Lochte said he tries not to pay attention to the limelight when it’s shining on him or other swimmers. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he was cast in Phelps’ shadow despite some outstanding individual and relay performances.
“I am always in my own world and it doesn’t bother me at all when other swimmers are getting the attention,” Lochte said. “I kind of like it because it gives me something to look forward to doing, that I have a purpose going into that water. I think at worlds I broke out of the background and showed myself l can do it. I just have to keep that ball rolling.”
Lochte has returned to training in Gainesville “basically where my career started” and where he owns a house. He works with Gator swimmers, past and present, and coaching staff.
“As you get older, you start looking to the other things in practice, whether it’s going up and down the pool hauling butt all out, all the time,” Lochte said. “You start focusing on the little things like technique. You start doing less yardage just because your body can’t handle all the pounding. I definitely am more aware of my swimming now than I have been before.”
Now that the swim suit issue has been resolved and playing field is even again, Lochte said normalcy will return to the sport and spotlight will be back on swimmers and not the suit.
“Everyone was looking for the suit to help them go fast and now it’s not the case,” Lochte said. “Now it’s have you trained? Have you done the work? How bad do you want it? All that stuff comes into play now and that’s where I like it.”
Lochte’s next meet will be the May 13-16 Charlotte Ultraswim Grand Prix in Charlotte, N.C. He will be joined by Aaron Piersol and Phelps. The meet will be a training gauge for Lochte who is gearing up for the Aug. 18-24 Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine, Calif.
“I want to do really well there,” Lochte said. “Then it’s short course worlds in Dubai, world championships next summer and after that 2012 Olympics.
“The sport is still fresh for me because I love racing,” Lochte said. “The time when I stop loving racing and not having fun in swimming is when I quit and walk away from the sport. But I honestly don’t see that happening soon.”
Sharon Robb can be reached at email@example.com