An unlikely sports drama is playing out in Charlotte as star swimmer Ryan Lochte prepares to race in front of the world one more time.
It will culminate two years from now in Brazil when Lochte attempts to medal in his fourth straight Summer Olympics.
Then, Lochte will be 32, considered old for an elite swimmer. To succeed, he’s taking a risk.
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Lochte’s celebrity transcends sports, but he abandoned plans to move to Los Angeles where he had become a regular on late-night talk shows and made guest appearances on “30 Rock” and “90210.”
Instead, he moved to Charlotte.
He came here last fall for one reason – to train under David Marsh, 55, who has made a career taking risks of his own.
Relatively unknown outside the swimming world, Marsh is one of the sport’s premier coaches. He lives in a city enthralled by the Panthers and the Hornets, but boasts of his swimmers: “This is the best pro team in town.”
He’s coached Olympic medalists before, but never one as accomplished as Lochte.
Together they make for an unusual pairing – the cerebral Marsh, with a philosophy that could help change the sport of swimming, and Lochte, a physical marvel who is being challenged to change many of the habits that made him a champion.
It was a shock in 2007 when Marsh left one of college’s best programs to become the chief executive for a swimming club in Charlotte.
In 17 years of coaching Auburn, Marsh won 12 NCAA titles.
But in SwimMAC Carolina, Marsh saw the opportunity to change the sport by applying his methods to younger athletes as well as develop his own team of Olympians.
SwimMAC, which trains at several facilities across the county, was looking to grow. It had swimmers reach the Olympics before – Mel Stewart and Jilen Siroky in the 1990s and alumnus Ricky Berens in the 2000s – but the club wanted to produce elite swimmers more than once a decade.
Marsh has turned it into a powerhouse. Since he arrived, USA Swimming has named SwimMAC the nation’s top club three times. In 2012, he placed five SwimMAC members on the Olympic team.
Now, with Lochte, he’s poised to make an even larger impact.
Betting on Charlotte
Lochte caught America’s attention at the 2012 Olympics.
He combines leading-man good looks and an outgoing personality that drew millions of YouTube views with his unusual quotes that often left interviewers puzzled or doubled over in laughter.
He starred in his own reality show on E!: Entertainment Television and planned to start his own clothing line. Fortune magazine in 2012 estimated his endorsement earnings at about $2 million and expected them to grow.
But Lochte gambled on Charlotte, just as Marsh did six years earlier.
In the pool, he wanted to give up events that required longer practices for shorter butterfly, backstroke and freestyle races at a more sprint-oriented program. He decided he was ready to give up life in a college town, where he had a reputation as a skateboarding free spirit in search of a good time.
U.S. teammate and friend Cullen Jones told Lochte about his success in Charlotte with Marsh, a coach with a different approach.
In Gainesville, Fla., where Lochte trained for more than a decade, he regularly swam up to 20,000 yards a day, or more than 10 miles.
How much does he swim in Marsh’s program?
“I seriously don’t count,” Marsh said, when asked for a total at a recent practice at Queens University with his 18-member Team Elite group.
How far isn’t important, Marsh says. It’s intensity and race-speed training that matter. He and a growing number of coaches argue: Why swim long distances when most races last two minutes or less?
Instead, he adds unusual training methods to provide strength and power. Swimmers climb ropes that are tethered to the pool ceiling and dangle over the water, then do pullups 30 feet in the air. Other times they swim while attached to cords that raise stacks of weights to provide resistance.
Marsh also works on their mental conditioning.
At one practice, Marsh wanted to emphasize intensity and prod his swimmers to attack. So as they splashed through short bursts of strength drills, Marsh played footage of great white sharks on a large video scoreboard.
“I think a great white shark hunting is a good thing for them to see,” Marsh said.
Not long after Lochte arrived in Charlotte, he almost quit.
In November, he suffered a knee injury when an excited teenage fan ran at him during a trip to Gainesville. She leaped and he caught her, but they fell. Lochte’s knee slammed into a curb, injuring ligaments.
During his knee rehab, he thought he might be done.
“It just wasn’t fun anymore,” Lochte said.
But he said Marsh asked him a question that changed his mind: Would you be satisfied with your career if you stopped now?
He realized he wouldn’t. And he realized something about his new coach.
“He actually cares about me. He doesn’t just want to be my coach and have just another great name on his resume,” Lochte said. “He actually cares about me as a person.”
Still, Lochte struggled at times.
He missed practices, either for professional sponsor commitments or for unexplained reasons.
He lost focus some days.
And he credits Marsh with calling him out when he needed it.
At the close of a practice last month, Marsh leaned against a ladder and addressed his entire squad after an especially frustrating week. Swimmers had been late and were not engaged in the workout.
Marsh never raised his voice, but his disappointment was clear. “This schedule is pretty good,” he reminded them. “We’re not doing twice a days, just grinding it out.”
Focus more and work harder, Marsh told them.
As he prepared to leave the building, Lochte was asked about the dressing-down.
“He was probably talking about me,” he said quietly.
Tomorrow, he promised, he’d show up on time.
Seven months into this new relationship, Lochte seems motivated. He practices regularly and shows up rested. He says he’s learning something from Marsh every day.
Practice is fun. Plus, he’s seeing results, even though he’s struggling to overcome his knee injury.
In March, Lochte entered a low-key Charlotte event that featured top national swimmers. In three races, he set personal bests.
Then, two weeks ago, Lochte swam in the Grand Prix meet in Mesa, Ariz. It attracted media attention for the comeback of Michael Phelps, the sport’s most storied swimmer and longtime Lochte rival.
The two raced against each other in the 100 meter butterfly. Swimming side-by-side, Lochte at one point led by a half-body length until Phelps began to close the gap in the final meters. Lochte finished first in 51.93 seconds, beating Phelps by two-tenths of a second.
That was Lochte’s best race of the meet. It was also the second-fastest time in the world this year for the event. “Having fun taking #selfies with the fans after winning 100 fly tonight. Love u guys!” he tweeted.
Keeping his edge
Marsh sees Lochte evolving into a more mature athlete, someone who is less impulsive, more committed. But he wants to leave room for Lochte to be himself.
“I have the image of the perfect swimmer, like a robot. But the reality is the best swimmers in the world are the best because of their nuances and quirks,” Marsh said. “I try to embrace the idiosyncrasies of people.”
How has Lochte changed?
“I’m not around him outside the pool but certainly the conversations he’s having with his teammates are different,” Marsh said. “He’s not looking for adventure in the evenings after speaking engagements – that’s a pretty profound improvement. He’s getting some rest.
“But he is by nature a fun loving guy. I’d like to see him be a free spirit but not carefree. I don’t want him to lose his edge.”
Having already won 11 Olympic medals, Lochte won’t say what his goals are for the next summer games. “That,” he said, “ is between me and my coach.”
But it’s clear he believes in Marsh and their chances.
Just Thursday, Lochte put up a new post on Twitter.
“Change,” he wrote, “is never too late.”