OMAHA — It was difficult to interpret the many-layered ovation that went up across CHI Health Center on Thursday night, the fifth night of the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, when Ryan Lochte’s name was introduced before the first heat of the semifinals of the men’s 200-meter individual medley, Lochte’s signature event for nearly two decades.

The high-pitched squeals suggested Lochte, 36, still had the rock-star appeal he has been bringing to the sport since the mid-2000s. The warmth of the applause from the crowd suggested swimming fans have bought in wholeheartedly to the tale of redemption he has worked hard these past few years to put forward.

But there was also a sustained overtone that sounded like gratitude, like appreciation, like a tentative goodbye. It returned as he went to hug his kids and walked slowly off the pool deck.

Thursday night’s swim could have been the last of Lochte’s storied and star-crossed career had he finished outside the top eight after the semis. Instead, with a time of 1:58.65 that was third fastest in his heat, he earned a spot in Friday night’s final of the 200 IM as the sixth seed. It’s an event in which he is the world record holder (1:54.00 in 2011) but one in which he hasn’t been below 1:57, which might be required to make it to Tokyo, since 2016.

When he hit the wall Thursday night and looked up at the scoreboard to see his time, he grimaced and gave his head a slight shake.

“There’s a lot I’ve got to improve in that race. That was just not a good one,” Lochte said on NBC, which typically reserves its pool-deck interviews for first-place finishers and Olympics qualifiers. “ … I’ll be better.”

That swim Friday night will be the 56th of Lochte’s career at the U.S. Olympic trials, dating from 2004, when as a 19-year-old University of Florida standout he first captivated the country with his multi-stroke pool prowess, teen-idol looks and party-boy charm.

It also very well might be his last race as a competitive swimmer. If he finishes outside the top two, he will be denied a spot on the Team USA roster that will head to Tokyo for the Olympics next month. Lochte, a 12-time Olympic medalist, came to Omaha this month hoping to make it to a fifth Summer Games, become the oldest male Olympic swimmer in U.S. history and perhaps earn a 13th medal to break a tie with Natalie Coughlin, Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson as the second-most-decorated Olympian in swimming history behind Michael Phelps, who won 28.

Although Lochte is also entered in the 100-meter butterfly, which will be raced Friday and Saturday, he is seeded 38th in a field of 69 and could choose to scratch out of an event in which he has little chance of qualifying for Tokyo.

Nowhere does the past, present and future of a sport intersect quite like the swimming trials, which come around only every four years (or in this case, five) — long enough for teenage phenoms to become established stars and for veterans at the back end of their primes to become nostalgia acts on their way out the door. For Lochte, as for the other veteran swimmers here, the year-long postponement of Tokyo, forced by the coronavirus pandemic, did no favors.

“We were pretty prepared for last year, I thought,” Gregg Troy, Lochte’s coach, said last week. “Another year of extending everything made that a little bit tougher, I believe.”

The present is in the hands of swimmers such as 24-year-old Caeleb Dressel, Lochte’s training partner with Gator Swim Club in Gainesville, Fla., who won the 100-meter freestyle Thursday night (47.39) to launch his campaign for Tokyo. Dressel, arguably the top male swimmer in the world, could be in line to win six or seven medals in Tokyo. Along with freestyler Katie Ledecky, he represents the Americans’ firewall against what appears to be a legitimate threat for medal dominance from the Australians.

Lochte was once that type of swimmer for the United States. He won two medals in Athens 2004 — four in Beijing 2008, five in London 2012 and one (a relay gold) in Rio de Janeiro — and was almost certainly kept from winning more by his overlap with Phelps, the all-time great who swam most of the same events.

Lochte might have been content to walk away after 2016, as Phelps did, had his Olympics not ended in a spectacular and humiliating implosion, when Lochte and three U.S. teammates busted up a gas station restroom, fought with security guards and concocted a story about being robbed at gunpoint.

He would leave Brazil in disgrace, the start of a downward spiral that saw him suspended for a year by USA Swimming for the Rio incident, then suspended again for 14 months for a doping rule violation after a social media post showed him taking a legal substance (vitamin B12) in an illegal way (by IV infusion).

“Maybe that was a wake-up call for me: ‘If you keep going down this route, you’re going to wind up hurting someone or maybe myself,’ ” Lochte said during an interview at the University of Florida pool in February 2020 when asked about his descent. “I knew I had to stop. I had to fix some things in my life. I was going down that path of destruction. I needed a change.”

The path back from those depths was long, twisting and messy. He spent 43 days in an outpatient alcohol rehabilitation center. He and wife Kayla became parents twice over. He moved from Charlotte, his longtime training base, to Los Angeles, where he competed on “Dancing With the Stars,” then eventually to Gainesville, his old college stomping grounds. When he resumed swimming, he was 30 pounds above his ideal competition weight.

Now he says he’s the happiest he has ever been. Kayla and the kids — Caiden is 4, and Liv turned 2 on Thursday — keep him grounded. He’s back to his fighting weight and back to a reasonable facsimile of the old Lochte in the pool. But that might not be enough anymore.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Lochte said last year. “I’m up against swimmers literally half my age. I’ve always had pressure in my career. But this time, it’s not just the pressure on me. It’s — I want to perform well. And I want to basically, pardon my French, say ‘F--- you’ to everyone. I want to be able to do that.”

With Lochte’s competitive swimming career probably coming to an end, either in Omaha or (he hopes) Tokyo, it is only natural to consider his legacy in the pool. Asked whether he believes he could have achieved more had he been more disciplined and dedicated away from the pool, he paused briefly and said, “I don’t think so.

“The reason I was so good at what I did is that I had two different lives,” he said. “I had a life dedicated strictly to the pool. Not to toot my own horn, but I can out-train anyone in a pool. I’ll go until I bleed out of my eyeballs, until there’s nothing left and I’m drowning. And I can do that on a daily basis. I never cheated myself.

“But I needed to escape from the pool. If I went home and thought about swimming and talked about swimming, I’d have to quit. It would be overload. Once I left the pool, I wasn’t a swimmer. I was just Ryan Lochte, and I had a different lifestyle. I had friends. I had things I wanted to do. That’s why I say I don’t know if I could have been better if I’d done things differently.”

Soon enough, there won’t be two separate lives to keep straight or more competition pools to escape from. There will only be Ryan Lochte, a man with no more walls to reach for — but plenty of good living to do.