Ryan Lochte has already hit a pothole on the first leg of his road to redemption.
Towards the tail end of Monday night’s live two-hour season premiere of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” the six-time Olympic gold medalist and his partner Cheryl Burke were startled when two men stormed the stage in protest of Lochte’s participation on the reality show.
Los Angeles police told ESPN they arrested Sam Sododeh, 48, and Barzeen Soroudi, 40, both of Los Angeles, on trespassing charges. The two men had tickets but were not wearing the T-shirts – which were white with a red circle and line through Lochte’s name – when they first entered the studio, according to police. The show is broadcast live from CBS Television City in Hollywood, but airs on ABC.
“You know, at that moment, I was really heartbroken,” Lochte told CNN after the show aired. “My heart just sunk. It felt like somebody just ripped it apart.” But Lochte added he “had to brush it off.”
The 32-year-old swimmer’s debut on “Dancing” came just four days after he was ordered to forfeit $100,000 and a chance to swim at next year’s world championships as part of the penalty for his drunken encounter at a gas station in Brazil during last month’s Olympics.
Heading into Rio, Lochte was the headliner among the pack of Olympic-caliber swimmers in Charlotte; he moved to Charlotte in October 2013 to train under SwimMAC Carolina’s head coach David Marsh.
On Monday night, everything seemed to be going fine for Lochte prior to the incident. As the second-to-last duo to dance, he and Burke had just finished a foxtrot set to Michael Buble’s “Call Me Irresponsible” – a song choice that was a clear but winking nod to his actions at the Rio de Janeiro gas station and his rapidly changing subsequent accounts of what really happened in Brazil.
“This is the place for second chances,” Inaba said as she launched into her feedback during the live broadcast. “What you bring to this ballroom is all we want to see, and I really do feel that you brought your best to this ballroom. You have a long way to go. Swimming is a –”
She paused, looking confused, then shouted, “Excuse me! Hey, back off! Excuse me! Excuse me! Excuse me! Off! Off! Excuse me!”
Viewers could see a little bit of commotion as the camera stayed on Inaba for a full 18 seconds; they appeared to be security guards responding to the disturbance. People Magazine reports that, unseen to viewers at home, the older of the two male protestors walked in front of host Tom Bergeron.
According to People, as the older of the two men yelled into the camera (this was not seen or heard on TV, by the way), he was tackled by security guards and pushed into Lochte, Burke and Bergeron as they were listening to the reviews of the couple’s debut dance.
As Bergeron abruptly cut to a commercial break, fellow professional dancer Derek Hough ran out and yelled “get them out of here” before the men were escorted out by security, People reported. Lochte appeared to be shaken up on camera, Burke was reportedly seen crying, and People also said the audience was chanting Lochte’s name at that point.
Upon returning, Bergeron announced: “We had to go to break because we had a little incident. I would like to personally thank our security team for staying in shape.”
He didn’t provide specifics, but proceeded to ask Lochte how the interruption made him feel.
“So many feelings are going through my head right now. A little hurt,” said Lochte, who in the aftermath of the Rio controversy also lost huge sources of income when key sponsors including Speedo and Ralph Lauren dropped him. “But I came out here, I wanted to do something that I’m completely not comfortable with, and I did. I came out with a big smile, and I have the best dance partner.”
Critics have held up Lochte as an example of ugly Americanism since the Rio Olympics, where Lochte and swimming teammates Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger and Jimmy Feigen were involved in a drunken encounter early in the morning of Aug. 14. Lochte intially said they were threatened and robbed by armed men posing as police officers, although he later admitted that he “over-exaggerated” those claims.
According to ESPN, on Monday night, one of the suspects was heard saying, “We want to publicize that this is a bad decision to have a liar be publicized as a star,” before being taken away by police.
But the “DWTS” family seemed to be squarely on Lochte’s side all night Monday. After the commotion was over, Bergeron told the viewing audience: “We are nothing if not a country of second acts and second chances.”
“Yeah, first of all, wow,” Inaba then said, picking up on her critique of Lochte’s performance. “OK, you came out here and you gave it your best. I do think that you have a lot to work on. The technique of your body and the way you’re used to carrying your body is very different for ballroom dancing. But what I love is this is a fresh start. We are only here to judge your ballroom dancing – I want you to know that.”
Then each of the four judges – Inaba, Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli and Julianne Hough – awarded Lochte and Burke scores of 6 for their performance, which saw Lochte in an all-white suit save for a black tie and black lapels; the staging for the dance featured a luxury car rebranded with the swimmer’s name and filled with white roses.
The combined score of 24 put Lochte in a tie for ninth out of 13 couples, the first of which will be eliminated during a live show next Tuesday night on ABC. Fellow Rio Olympian Laurie Hernandez (dancing with Val Chmerkovskiy) and race car driver James Hinchcliffe (with Sharna Burgess) tied the highest combined scores of the night: 31 out of 40.
Lochte’s partner, Burke – who was clearly shaken up by the incident – told Bergeron during the live telecast: “I’m shocked, and I’m hurt for Ryan. Me and Ryan have gotten the pleasure to know each other, and he’s an amazing guy. He’s great. He’s kind. And he’s just here working his butt off, and trying to do what he’s supposed to be doing – which is dancing. So I hope people give him the chance.”
And afterward, fellow “Dancing With the Stars” cast members offered words of support for the swimmer.
“He won the gold medal for this country, folks. Get over the bull story, whatever. It doesn’t matter,” Rob Van Winkle, best known as rapper Vanilla Ice, told CNN. “He’s a hero and he’s a great guy on top of that.”