But can he actually make it there? Is he likely to qualify for a fifth Olympics after a tumultuous few years and at an age when most swimmers have moved on to new pursuits and second careers?
“Right now, I’m headed in the right direction,” he said Thursday. “That’s the best assessment.”
Lochte, the most decorated male swimmer not named Phelps, is competing this week at his first meet of the calendar year, the TYR Pro Series event in Des Moines. He failed to crack 50 seconds in his 100-meter freestyle heat Thursday, posting the 26th-best time overall, but then won his heat in the 400 free. His time of 3:57.75 was only the 10th best overall, but it was Lochte’s fastest in nearly nine years.
But with more than three months remaining before the U.S. Olympic trials, Lochte feels he has reason for optimism. His plan isn’t to post stunning times in March. His aim is squarely on Olympic trials in June, and for now, he’s just looking for signs of progress in his comeback, which began in earnest last summer.
He said he has matured beyond the scandals, headlines and hard-partying lifestyle that earned him a reality TV show. He served a 10-month suspension for exaggerated claims that he was robbed by a taxi driver during the Rio de Janeiro Games. Then in 2018 the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency hit him with a 14-month suspension when he posted a photo on social media of himself getting an intravenous vitamin injection. The substance was legal but the IV method was not.
In his first event back in the pool, Lochte managed a first-place swim at U.S. nationals in August in the 200 individual medley, but his Olympic prospects were unclear. For starters, few of the top American swimmers were competing, and Lochte was out of shape and overweight — 40 pounds too heavy, he estimates.
“I was training hard but it was like I was carrying a 40-pound weight on my back every time I swam,” he said. “I was drowning basically.”
He’s now closer to 190 with the goal of dropping a few more pounds. With better conditioning comes better times, he figures, and he feels a renewed focus on the sport is paying dividends.
“Once I got that weight off, I mean, I feel like a new person,” said Lochte, a 12-time Olympic medalist. “I’m happier than I was. Everything is going so good in my life outside the sport of swimming, which is helping me at the pool.”
But he’s still 35 years old, and his body has a lot of miles on it. He said he has decreased his training workload and is trying to focus more on recovery — though that’s not always easy with a 2 ½-year old toddler and 8-month old baby keeping him busy.
“It’s matter of how well you take care of your body in and out of the pool,” he said. “I’m eating healthier. I’m not doing crazy stuff that I used to do — skateboarding, surfing, things that result in injuries. Now I take my kid to the park. That’s what’s fun to me. Twelve years ago, it was, go to the bar, get hammered, party with my friends, skateboarding, dangerous stuff. I don’t want that now.”
For years, athletes didn’t have the incentive to continue competing into their 30s. They had to embark on careers and were never able to test their bodies as they aged. Like Dara Torres, who was 41 when she won three medals at the 2008 Games, Lochte is eager to show that swimmers can still be competitive as they age.
“Your training has to adapt and change. You can’t do all the things you did at 18 and 20 years old,” said David Marsh, the veteran swim coach. “But your confidence and the skills you have neurologically are deeply set, so there’s a big advantage to being older in the sport, if you can do it in a way that gives you a good lifestyle and you’re not anxious about what you’re missing.”
Marsh coached Lochte for three years with Team Elite and saw the swimmer put in some intense workouts that would’ve gassed most swimmers.
“If there’s any disadvantage, it’s not necessarily his age but the wear and tear on his body,” said Marsh, who also coached Anthony Ervin, who was 35 when he won gold at the Rio Games, the oldest individual Olympic swimming champion. “He looks very physically fit right now. He’s going to have to use the tools in his toolbox that he knows he has.”
Lochte will also need to find the right opening. He says he has been training in a way that would prepare him for the grueling program he tackled at the 2012 Games, which included the 200 back, 200 free, and the 200 and 400 individual medleys. He’s coy when he’s asked which events he will actually pursue at the trials, but the 200 IM might be his best shot.
Chase Kalisz took bronze in the event at last year’s world championships, but many around the pool deck feel Lochte could grab one of the two 200 IM spots at the trials. He is, after all, the world record holder in the 200 IM and has medaled in the event three times at the Olympics. Lochte also could be a candidate for both freestyle relays.
For now, he feels like his mind is right and he has barely three more months to fully prepare his body. If it all comes together, he would match Phelps and Torres with a fifth Olympic appearance.
“I feel like times are irrelevant for me right now,” he said. “The times don’t matter at Olympic trials or the Olympics. It’s about racing. It’s about putting your hand on the wall. That’s what I’m focused on.”
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