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The news bulletin appeared on the website of a Gainesville, Fla., television station on June 22, just a month before the start of the World Swimming Championships in Shanghai: RYAN LOCHTE CRASHES SCOOTER, HURTS CURRENT GATOR.
Driving to a morning practice at Florida with junior Marco Loughran seated behind, Lochte, a six-time Olympic medalist, swerved to miss a car pulling out of a driveway, hit a patch of dirt and spilled, bruising his left knee and sending Loughran to the hospital with minor internal injuries. For most elite swimmers, splatting onto the pavement before the biggest meet of the year would be cause for concern, or at least make a ripple in the news cycle. But for Lochte, who has made a habit of getting banged up when the stakes are highest and then performing his best, the accident was "par for the course," says Gators strength coach Matt DeLancey.
"I don't worry about Ryan anymore because I know that regardless of what happens to him outside the water, once he gets in it, he's going to swim fast," says DeLancey, who has helped nurse Lochte through a foot fracture (scooter accident before 2007 worlds), an ankle sprain (chasing his Doberman, Carter, before the 2008 Olympic trials); a torn meniscus (break dancing, before the 2009 short-course nationals), a groin pull (practicing before 2010 nationals) and a strained MCL (reaching for his cellphone in the backseat of his car, April 2011), to name some of the injuries Lochte, 26, has sustained as an adult. "It's just who he is."
Aside from a stomach bug at the Beijing Games three years ago, nothing—not freak accidents, not sharing an era with the greatest swimmer in history, Michael Phelps—has slowed Lochte on his ascent from perpetual runner-up to world-beater. Last summer was a breakout season: After losing head-to-head to Phelps in the 200 and 400 individual medleys 20 straight times in major long-course races over seven years, Lochte finally beat him in the 200 IM at last summer's nationals in Irvine, Calif. (For good measure, he also beat Phelps in the 200 back.) Two weeks later at the Pan Pacific Championships in the same pool, Lochte won six gold medals, a haul that marked him, at least for the time being, as the top swimmer in the world.
So who is Ryan Lochte? Perhaps you've heard the comparisons to Jeff Spicoli, the spacey surfer of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and nodded knowingly when you saw the laid-back skateboard enthusiast interviewed poolside. Maybe you've seen him stride to the awards podium in the rhinestone-studded "Martian" green high-tops he helped Speedo design for him, or watched him hop up on the blocks at Grand Prix meets in a pink Speedo brief (also his design) that provides a stunning contrast to the black jammers worn by most of his competitors. Perhaps you've heard about his annual July 4 tradition of standing in a circle with his brother Devon and a few friends, lighting an arsenal of bottle rockets all at once and then standing still as the fireworks whoosh and dive around them—enduring the random nicks and burns because, he says, "it's crazy and fun." ("He likes to surf a lot too," sighs his mom, Ileana, speaking on the phone from Port Orange, Fla. "And we're shark-infested here.") Maybe you've summed up Ryan Lochte in one word: flake.
"I don't know if flakey is the right word, but he does have a little bit of an airhead quality to him," says his coach, Gregg Troy. Yet that carefree, "doo-di-doo" (Lochte's word) attitude may be the least of the swimmer's defining characteristics. Poll the people who know him best and you'll learn he is hardworking, dogged, generous, humble, caring, genuine, coachable, playful, tough, imaginative and—did we mention the pink Speedo?—fearless.
"Ryan is a risk-taker," says Troy. "There are some negatives about that. He gets injured doing stupid things. At the same time, in a race he's not afraid to go out a little fast or sit back and see if he can catch everyone at the end. As a competitor you never know what he's going to do. So you can't take the risk-taker out of him. You can't take away his biggest skill."
Lochte has started to think twice about risking everything for a thrill—Troy talked him out of going skydiving in Hawaii last fall, for example—but his philosophy remains intact. "My parents always told me to live life to the fullest," he says. "Have fun with it. I took that to heart."
Lochte's sister Megan Torrini, 31, says her little brother has had the same approach to swimming since he was eight. "In Ryan's first race, it might have been the 25 or 50 free, he had no idea what he was doing, but once he dived in, he just took off and killed everyone," says Torrini, one of five Lochte siblings. "That's been the story of his swimming career. He doesn't question his ability, his training or what he ate for breakfast. He doesn't worry about whether the other guy is better than him. He just races. It's a game to him. He is like a kid playing tag. That's his gift."
As a kid in rural Bloomfield, N.Y., Lochte got kicked out of the pool almost every other day. If blowing bubbles and distracting other swimmers didn't push the buttons of his coach—who happened to be his mom—he would ask to go to the bathroom. An hour later he'd return, his back lobster red from a hot shower, his mouth blue from eating powdered Kool-Aid, his suit frayed from a favorite game: flooding the showers with soap and water and sliding around on his butt. "But when it came time to do a time trial, he was the first in line," says his dad, Steve, a former All-America swimmer at Miami who started coaching Ryan when he was 12. "He'd go all out in a race."