“I was kind of taking it all in,” Lochte said later.
There was certainly plenty to take in. With Lochte there always has been. Finishing seventh in the 200-meter individual medley final Friday means that Lochte’s Olympic career is over. His bid for a fifth U.S. team came up short, and for the first time since 2000, Team USA will chase Olympic medals without one of the most decorated, popular and polarizing swimmers the sport has ever known.
“I really wanted to be on that Olympic team,” Lochte said. “I think this is probably my most important swim meet that I’ve ever had in my entire career, the one that meant the most to me. So falling short and feeling like I let everyone down was one of the hardest things.”
He was never a lock for Tokyo. At 36, he was aiming to become the oldest male swimmer Team USA has ever taken to an Olympics. He came to fame during the Phelps era, the two battling each other in similar events for years, but his celebrity transcended the pool, and his chase for a fifth Olympic team generated plenty of headlines — and pressure, he said.
“I wanted to prove so much to everyone,” he said.
Lochte was trying to rewrite the final chapter of his storied career. He left the Rio de Janeiro Games in shame after he and three U.S. teammates lied about destroying a gas station bathroom. That earned him a year-long suspension. And then he got slapped with a 14-month suspension when he violated doping rules, using an IV infusion to administer a legal vitamin.
He has said repeatedly in recent years that he had matured. He married, had two children and hoped the Tokyo Games were a chance to show the world how much changed in five years.
“I just want to make everyone happy, I guess,” he said. “I just want to do it for everyone, and prove to everyone that I have changed. I’m a different person.”
He was emotional during a post-race news conference Friday night, but he made clear that he wasn’t retiring.
“I’ll quit swimming when I stop having fun,” he said. “I love this sport. It's gotten me to places that people dream about. So I’m very grateful for that. I'm still having fun. I'm finding different ways making swimming fun again. I still want to race.”
As for another shot at an Olympics and one more visit to trials, he acknowledged time wasn’t on his side. He’ll be 39 when Paris hosts the 2024 Games.
“That’s pushing it,” he said. “But we’ll see. Anything can happen. I can take years off, come back and be stronger than ever. Who knows? But right now, I’m just going to take this all in and go see my family.”
Lochte competed in the 200-meter freestyle earlier in the week — finishing 25th in the preliminary heats — but the 200 IM was always his best shot. It’s his signature event, the one that first introduced much of the world to a 20-year-old Lochte back in 2004, when he won silver at the Athens Olympics. He would go on to win 12 Olympic medals and has held the 200 IM record since 2011.
But he’s years away from his best times. Lochte finished Friday’s final in 1:59.67, more than a second slower than his semifinal time — and 5.67 seconds off his world record mark. It was his 56th race at a U.S. trials. Most of his contemporaries had long ago retired. The swimmer one lane over — 19-year-old Carson Foster — was all of 2 years old when Lochte made his Olympic debut.
Lochte was teary-eyed talking about a new crop of swimmers, those who’ve drawn inspiration from him. He said he plans to remain around the sport in some capacity and said without the pressure of making the Olympic team, he’ll be having more fun in and out of the pool.
“This is not the last that you’re going to see of me,” he said.