One last great summer.
That’s what Ryan Lochte would love as he splashes toward what may be the final lap of his swimming career. Lochte has been a Charlottean since 2013, and he will be the headliner in the 2016 Arena Pro Swim Series at Charlotte that starts in earnest Friday night at the newly renovated Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center.
This Charlotte meet is a precursor to June’s U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., which are in turn a precursor to the Olympics themselves. An 11-time Olympic medalist, Lochte would love to grab another handful of gold and another co-starring role in the nightly miniseries that the Summer Olympics will turn into all over the world this August.
Considered a shoo-in to make his fourth U.S. Olympic team, Lochte will turn 32 just before the 2016 Olympics in Brazil begin. He won’t say for sure whether he’s going to retire or not following these Games, but it would seem likely.
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“I can never tell with him,” Lochte’s mother, Ileana “Ike” Lochte, told me of her son and his future plans Thursday. “But I think right now he’s at a point where he’s looking at everybody else having this other life that he doesn’t have.”
“I’ll stop swimming the day I stop having fun,” Lochte said Thursday. “There have been a couple of points in the past four years where I thought swimming wasn’t fun anymore and I really thought about quitting. But I found that fun. I found it back in my swimming and I’m having a blast. I can’t say this will be my last Olympics. And I can’t say I’ll go to another one.”
Lochte’s swimming friends have mostly either retired, gotten engaged, gotten married and/or had a child. He has done none of those things. His longtime rival Michael Phelps usually swims at this Charlotte meet, but Phelps has skipped competitive swimming this weekend because his fiancee just gave birth to their first child (they named the boy “Boomer”).
Lochte applauded Phelps’ decision not to race but already misses him. Said Lochte: “I’m kind of bummed that he’s not here just because he is one of the hardest racers I’ve ever had to go up against. ... I love that challenge.”
Lochte has made millions swimming – mostly due to his endorsements – but he has also put much of the rest of his life on hold while doing so. He moved to Charlotte in 2013 primarily to work with coach David Marsh, who runs SwimMAC Carolina and also heads an elite program for post-graduate swimmers called “Team Elite.”
Lochte had gone to the University of Florida and had continued to train there after college, experiencing great success. But he didn’t have a large team of elite swimmers to hang out with in and out of the water.
One of Lochte’s best friends is Cullen Jones, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who has been part of SwimMAC’s Team Elite for the past three Olympic cycles.
Said Ike Lochte, a longtime swim coach, of her son: “He has a lot of friends here in Charlotte. He thrives with them and they push each other. ...In Florida, he hated it when he didn’t have a team (during Lochte’s post-college career). ... He went almost through like a depression just because he had nobody to compete with. ... But now he has a whole team.”
At this weekend’s meet in Charlotte, Lochte is tentatively scheduled to swim seven events. One of the most versatile swimmers in the world, Lochte will focus on the grueling 400 individual medley Friday, followed by 2-3 more events both Saturday and Sunday.
“The past 3-4 months have been really good for me – just my focus and everything happening outside the pool and in the pool,” Lochte said. “I’m kind of excited to see how well I’m going to do. So I’m in a good place right now.”
Said Marsh: “The thing about Ryan is he has the best four strokes in the world if you put them all together. His breaststroke is better than it’s ever been right now. ... And he works so hard. When he’s in the water, the way he’ll push himself in practice is as good as I’ve ever had in my career.”
Lochte admitted that grinding through practices doesn’t get him excited the way it once did but said working with younger swimmers during practices at SwimMAC helps re-energize him. Lochte’s mother believes her son will one day be a swim coach.
“I don’t think he can leave the water for long,” she said.
For now, he’s not leaving it at all. Lochte’s path for the next three months is planned out: Charlotte to Omaha to Brazil. What comes next? He’s just not sure.
“I’m one of the older guys now,” Lochte said. “But inside I still feel like I’m young.”
Jaeger, Twichell win first events
The Arena Pro Swim Series at Charlotte had its usual “soft opening” Thursday night with just two long-distance events – the men’s 800 freestyle and the women’s 1500 freestyle.
U.S. Olympian Connor Jaeger won the men’s 800 for the fourth year in a row, posting the sixth-fastest time in the world this year in 7 minutes, 54.49 seconds. American Zane Grothe was second (7:57.00) and El Salvador’s Marcelo Acosta was third (8:05.79).
Ashley Twichell clocked the second-fastest time in the world this year in the women’s 1500, touching in 16:11.19 to win by almost five seconds. Chile’s Kristel Kobrich was second in 16:16.15, with American Gillian Ryan third in 16:32.21.
2016 Arena Pro Swim Series at Charlotte
When: Thursday through Sunday. Thursday timed finals to begin at 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday, preliminaries will begin at 9 a.m. each day and the daily finals will be at 6 p.m.
Where: Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center, 800 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., uptown Charlotte.
Tickets: No longer available online. They will be available at the door subject to availability. Tickets for Thursday's finals and all preliminary events Friday through Sunday start at $20 per person per day. Tickets for the 6 p.m. finals Friday, Saturday and Sunday start at $25 per person per day.