Ryan Lochte must draw on painful past to make Olympic team
OMAHA -- Ryan Lochte has fractured a shoulder falling out of a tree. He tore a meniscus break dancing. He tore an MCL and sprained an ACL landing on a curb after a fan ran into him.
He fractured his foot in a scooter accident, sprained an ankle chasing his Doberman, Carter, strained an MCL reaching for a cellphone in his car and has hurt himself skateboarding and been in a motorcycle accident.
“He’s always been a guy that lives on the edge a little bit,” said Gregg Troy, Lochte’s longtime coach at Florida. “He’s really adept at dealing with injury.”
But to have the injury occur inside the pool, in his first race at the Olympic Trials? That’s a new one for the 11-time Olympic medalist.
Lochte must now draw on his ability to swim through pain to make his fourth Olympic team this week. The world’s best swimmer four years ago, Lochte is no certainty to make the Rio Olympics.
“He’ll be dealing with some level of pain management through the meet now,” his coach, David Marsh, said.
By now you know Lochte pulled a groin in the breaststroke leg of his 400m individual medley preliminary heat here Sunday morning.
And he then finished third in the final eight hours later, failing to make the two-man U.S. team in the only event he won at the 2012 London Games.
Lochte, at age 31, is older than any swimmer from any nation who has ever raced the 400m IM at the Olympics, according to sports-reference.com. What they call the decathlon of swimming is not a seasoned man’s race.
Lochte said this two weeks after the London Olympics, when he swore off the 400m IM: “I’m getting older. My body’s getting older, so I can’t do those long events.”
Yet there he was Sunday night, with a 2.94-second lead after the first 200 meters. Lochte returned to the 400m IM in earnest this season and went into Trials as a favorite.
But few knew of his injury as he swam Sunday night.
Lochte and Marsh talked strategy in the afternoon. The groin problem would most impact him on the breaststroke, primarily a leg-based stroke.
“I thought about this morning, about scratching, but it’s the Olympic Trials,” Lochte said. “If I had a broken leg, I’d still go out there and swim.”
They adjusted his breaststroke kick in his final warm-up before the race. Lochte was on a massage table 20 minutes before he was introduced to a thunderous roar from the sold-out crowd.
Lochte slowed during that breaststroke leg, from 200 meters to 300 meters of the 400-meter race. He looked stuck in Jell-O as Chase Kalisz passed him with about 125 meters to go.
Finally, Jay Litherland went by Lochte in the final 25 meters, erasing a 3.35-second deficit halfway through the race.
“That hurt a little,” were Lochte’s first words to media after he left the pool deck and descended down a flight of stairs. “I couldn’t use my legs in breaststroke. I did everything I could in that race. It just wasn’t enough.”
Truth is, Lochte has such a history with groin flare-ups that Marsh before the final consulted Troy, his coach through 2013, for how he handled similar situations.
“That groin problem, he’s had that for years,” Troy said. “We went one whole summer with it before.”
Which summer was that?
“He’s had something every year,” Troy said. “It’s not unusual for him.”
Under Troy, Lochte won major international meet gold medals every summer from 2006 through 2013 (Olympics, World Championships, Pan Pacific Championships). Save 2007, when worlds were in the spring, but you get the point.
Lochte is used to swimming, and winning, through injury.
“He is somebody who will bounce back,” said Michael Phelps, who after finishing fourth in the 400m IM at the London Olympics went on to win six medals in six races. “He’s got a full plate and a full schedule this week, and I would assume he would use this as motivation to get going.”
Lochte’s slate the rest of the week:
200m freestyle -- Monday and Tuesday100m freestyle -- Wednesday and Thursday200m backstroke -- Thursday and Friday200m individual medley -- Thursday and Friday100m butterfly -- Friday and Saturday
The best chance will come in the 200m freestyle, for two primary reasons. Lochte is seeded first in that race as the fastest American since 2014. The top six finishers will likely make the Olympic team as part of the 4x200m freestyle relay pool.
The other events are riskier.
Lochte has never raced the 100m free at an Olympics or world championships (but, again, the top six will likely make the Olympic team for the relay).
The 200m backstroke and 200m individual medley finals will be in the same session and are two of the deepest men’s events. The 200m back includes the 2012 Olympic champion Tyler Clary and Ryan Murphy, one of USA Swimming’s young stars.
Phelps looms in the 200m IM, as does Kalisz and Conor Dwyer, who made the team in the 400m free Sunday night.
Phelps is there again in the 100m butterfly, as is Tom Shields, who beat Phelps at the 2014 U.S. Championships.
Lochte didn’t give much away in speaking with the media for about two minutes Sunday night.
“Probably not making the team [in the 400m IM] affects his mental state more than the throbbing, if anything,” Marsh said.
Marsh regretted not pulling Lochte out of the 400m IM final, but said he was assured Lochte would not do extra damage by racing.
“And Ryan actually deals with pain better than most human begins,” Marsh said.