If you wonder why elite athletes screw up, you need to know this:
They are intensely driven. They live in a regimented world. In a nation of 320 million, they are at the apex of the athletic pyramid and can get muscled off at any instant.
Rowdy Gaines, the Olympic gold medalist turned NBC swimming commentator, lived that life.
“They have nothing but blinders on for 11 months out of the year, so when the opportunity comes to be free of that, for only a moment, they go overboard,” Gaines says. “It’s like you’re breaking out of jail.”
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Unfortunately for Ryan Lochte, he nearly landed in one. His escapade of boozy vandalism last week turned into a police matter when Brazilian authorities said he lied about being the victim of an armed robbery.
Lochte apologized Friday. That was appropriate. Besides being world-famous, accounts suggest the 32-year-old was the ringleader of the four American swimmers snared in the imbroglio.
I caught up with Gaines, who oversees the aquatics program at the YMCA of Central Florida, to hear some insight into why these men and women with ultimate focus find themselves in a blurry mess.
To him, it’s pretty clear.
“I think it was one of those things where they just screwed up,” he says. “They were drunk and they were idiots.”
Gaines has been there. After his senior year at Auburn, the NCAA champion had his own jailbreaks. “I wasn’t proud of some of the things I did,” he admits.
What he can’t understand, however, is why Lochte’s apology was nearly a week in the making.
He says he texted the 12-time Olympic medalist days ago and urged him to apologize as soon as possible. Told him to call if he needed advice. Never heard back.
The title of Lochte’s now-defunct reality television asked, “What Would Ryan Do?”
Now we all know.
If Gaines were in this sinking boat, What Would Rowdy Do?
“I would fly to Rio on Sunday and get there Monday morning. It would be a circus, but I’d get on a podium and I would preach to the skies how sorry I was and how I screwed up, tell the God’s honest truth and face the consequences.”
Lochte’s not going to do that.
Look, he’s not the sharpest guy, but you don’t have to be to take your lumps.
Speaking of lumps, Gaines guesses USA Swimming, the sport’s governing body, will slap Lochte with a suspension of at least six months, and possibly a year for violating its code of conduct.
It’s all heartbreaking for Gaines.
For one, the mess has overshadowed the accomplishments by the entire U.S. team in the pool. The team won 33 medals, including 16 gold, its highest total since also winning 33 at the 2000 Sydney Games.
(The U.S. last won more medals, 34, at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Three went to Gaines.)
Mostly, though, he’s disappointed in Lochte. He respects the guy.
Gaines recalls how, last year, Lochte needed a place to train. He visited Gaines’ pool in Orlando.
When it was time to go, Gaines told Lochte he could squire him out of there unnoticed. The place was packed with 900 kids at a swim meet.
Lochte didn’t duck the inevitable onslaught.
“He stayed for four hours and signed autographs for the kids. The meet ended at 7 and he stayed there till 11,” Gaines says.
“And I’ve seen him do that over and over. He’s a good guy.”