Ryan Lochte finished his career at the University of Florida six years ago but never really left campus, never said a firm goodbye to his youth. He still wearily stumbles into the Stephen C. O’Connell Center for dawn workouts at the same pool, under the same coach, to train with a slightly different cast of undergraduates every year. He still rides his skateboard, shares a house near campus with a couple of guys and tools around in his Range Rover.

He remains a big kid in a burgeoning superstar’s body in a college town, trying to balance the fun that has always defined him with the demands of his increasing celebrity and new burden of maintaining his stature as the world’s most dominant swimmer — especially as Michael Phelps makes a push this summer to reclaim that position.

Lochte, 27, can’t wait to get out. During a recent pool workout, he flagrantly cheated when he fell behind during drills, executing flip turns in the middle of the pool to catch up. He’s already planning to move into a penthouse apartment near the beach in Southern California after the London Summer Games.

He has endured the monotony since he arrived as an unheralded freshman in 2003 for one simple reason: He has improved, consistently and dramatically.

It’s been amazing, actually, the growing up he has done here as a swimmer, even as he hangs on to many remnants of his collegiate days. This summer will provide the chance for something of a final unveiling of the Ryan Lochte Project, a graduate and post-graduate experiment undertaken by Lochte and University of Florida Coach Gregg Troy when few people had heard of either of them.

At 6 feet 2, Lochte is much shorter than most top male freestylers. He looks more like a fullback than a freestyle swimming star.

“We convinced him he needed to do things different than everyone else,” said Troy, also the 2012 U.S. Olympic men’s swimming team coach. “He set goals and told me his goals. I told him, ‘A lot of guys out there are better than you. If we do just what they do, you’re not going to catch up.’ ”

Added Troy: “If I was going out and designing an athletic body, his is not one I would design. He compensated for that with a good feel for the water and good mechanics . . . [but] he had ground to make up.”

Lochte likely will compete in five or six individual events at the U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha that begin Monday, though he actually entered 11. He likely will be appointed to all three relay swims in London, so by the time the trials are over, he could have nine Olympic gold medals within his sight. Phelps won eight in 2008.

“I definitely want to make history,” Lochte said. “I want to go down as one of the greatest. At the same time, I’m not really looking at a number. I’m not looking to go out and win nine gold medals; I’m going out there to have fun. I love racing . . . and that excitement of getting on the blocks and going head to head with anyone.”

‘I can beat these guys’

When Phelps earned his first world record and appeared in his first Olympics in Sydney in 2000 as a highly regarded 15-year-old, Lochte was drawing relatively little notice as a junior at Spruce Creek High in Daytona.

Under his father, who still coaches the Daytona Swim Club, Lochte swam four days a week, not five or six. He never experienced two-a-day workouts. Steve Lochte wanted to give him two important and basic gifts: perfect technique and a love of competition.

Troy, in his second season at the University of Florida, offered Lochte a full scholarship, but it came only at the last minute, after a more acclaimed high school star, George Bovell, a bronze medalist at the 2004 Summer Games, decided to attend Auburn.

Lochte remembers his first month at Florida, considered one of the most demanding college swimming programs in the country, as a miserable time. He struggled to keep up. Before the Gators’ first weekend meet, Troy told Lochte his performance wasn’t cutting it for a Division I program.

He told him to go home.

Lochte’s father met him when he pulled into the driveway.

“It was basically the shortest conversation with my dad that I’ve had, ever,” Lochte said. “He said, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Troy told me to go home and not swim in the meet.’ He said, ‘Get the hell back there and train harder.’

“I don’t know what happened after that,” Lochte added. “I started just sprinting everything. The more I kept on doing it, the easier it was. I was just a different person. . . . [Previously] I was like a little fish in a big pond. I didn’t know how to handle it. Once I started leading lanes and leading practices, I started getting confidence: ‘I can actually do this. I can beat these guys.’ ”

That wasn’t the first time Lochte learned what a little determination could do, but it was a defining moment. That season, he was named the Southeastern Conference freshman of the year and male swimmer of the year.

“I’ve always had that mentality, up until 2008,” Lochte said.

After finishing second to Phelps in two races at the Beijing Olympics, “I said, ‘Enough is enough.’ I’m tired of coming in second.”

‘Flaky around the edges'

Lochte owns a five-bedroom house that he shares with a friend, his younger brother Devon Lochte and his Doberman pinscher, Carter. Actually, it lost one bedroom, because Lochte turned it into an enormous walk-in closet. Rows of shoes line one wall, suits hang on another and T-shirts and jeans occupy a third.

Lochte shows off his sartorial sensibilities in the various modeling photo shoots that have arisen out of his recent success — as well as on the pool deck. He wears metallic emerald high-top sneakers with “Ryan” imprinted on one foot and “Lochte” on the other to the starting blocks. He prefers pink or purple or other wildly colored briefs for U.S. grand prix races (at the Olympics he will wear the faster, thigh-length jammers). He places metal grilles on his teeth before heading to medal stands.

“He reminds me of Gary Hall [Jr.] and what he did for the sport,” said U.S. swimmer Dana Vollmer, who swam with Lochte for a year at Florida. “Even if you didn’t know swimming, he was fun to watch. . . . He was entertaining, and Ryan brings that.”

Troy calls him “flaky around the edges.” Anthony Nesty, an assistant at Florida, chooses the word “goofy.” Lochte has missed critical training time before important meets because of scooter accidents, skateboarding crashes, break-dancing injuries and one plunge out of a tree. He conducted the interview for this story in swim briefs after a morning practice and while sitting in a plastic deck chair angled strategically for maximum sun exposure.

“A lot of people don’t want to be themselves, or are afraid to be themselves,” Lochte said. “Me, I could care less what people think of me.”

Lochte rarely looks serious or straight-faced, let alone angry, in any public setting, including when he finished behind Phelps in the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Yet Lochte said those races stirred something. If he learned anything under his father, it was this: The fun ends on the starting block.

“When the whistle blows: ‘Let’s get excited,’ ” Steve Lochte said. “I tried to transfer that aura, that energy, to him. . . . He hated to train when he was in age-group swimming, but boy, did he like to race. . . . He’s not afraid of anything or anyone.”

Against Phelps, whom he began facing leading up to the 2004 Summer Games, Lochte’s first, the result was almost always defeat. For years he collected silver medals. At Beijing in 2008, he officially got tired of it.

“I never look mad,” Lochte said. “But deep down inside, I was [ticked] off. I was not having fun with it. Outside the pool, I’m always having fun . . . but when I’m in the pool and get second place, I hate it. . . . I knew I could have gone faster. I said, ‘Enough. This sucks. I don’t like losing.’ I knew I had to change things.”

‘It’s go-time’

When Lochte got back to Gainesville after the 2008 Summer Games, he changed his eating habits, training approach and attitude. He cut out most junk food and fast food, and added “Strongman” workouts — which included such activities as flipping 850-pound tires, yanking a 520-pound boat chain 60 feet and jumping on and off boxes nearly as tall as he is.

“You can’t get the kid out of him,” said Nesty as Lochte powered through freestyle sets. “But his desire to win is huge. He’s so driven, so determined. All of those things put together, it’s why he gets the results he gets.”

At the 2009 world championships in Rome, Lochte broke Phelps’s world record in the 200 individual medley. Last year, at the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, Lochte made clear he wasn’t merely pursuing Phelps, but passing him.

He beat Phelps for the first time in the 200 medley — setting another world record — and also topped him in the 200 freestyle. Lochte was the star of the meet. He collected five golds and a bronze at the meet, as Phelps took home four golds, two silvers and a bronze.

That performance either capped Lochte’s climb or hinted at a changing of the guard in London. Whether he keeps his new throne or returns it to Phelps, Lochte said, fans will see some great racing.

“It’s like a switch goes off,” he said. “I’m really laid-back, but once the starter says, ‘Swimmers, step up to the blocks,’ it’s go-time. It changes you. I’m focused, ready to race, ready to go.”

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