Coming Up for Air
An attractive young woman has lost her balance and tumbled into the pool at David Posnack Jewish Community Center in Davie. As fate would have it, a 12-time Olympic swimming medalist is there to save the day.
He snags her phone as she’s falling in and notices a credit card “past due” alert flashing on her screen. Instead of jumping in, the man who ranks second only to Michael Phelps for most overall medals in U.S. men’s Olympic history tosses her a life preserver with an online logo emblazoned on it.
“It looks like you could use some financial help; you should check out Debt.com,” the shirtless man says into a camera, as a commercial crew of some 20 people remains quiet on the set. “They’re all about second chances—and everyone deserves a second chance.”
For Ryan Lochte, these waters are both familiar and uncharted at the same time.
On the one hand, the 32-year-old is no stranger to endorsement deals that play off his considerable prowess in the pool. On the other, Lochte is new to commercial spots that hint at the international controversy last summer in Rio de Janeiro that cast him as persona non grata in Brazil and as an embarrassment back home in the States.
In addition to working with Debt.com, the Broward-based business that offers one-stop shopping for personal finance and debt solutions, Lochte also signed with PowerBar to star in its “clean start” campaign—this, after losing endorsements with the likes of Speedo USA and Ralph Lauren in the aftermath of Rio.
If the events of the past six months are still weighing on the broad shoulders of the 6-foot-4 Lochte, it doesn’t show on this day. He’s kind to a fault with people on and off the set who approach him for selfies or autographs. He’s visibly happy to be working on one of the commercial setups with his fiancée, former Playboy model Kayla Rae Reid—who, unknown to anyone at the JCC, is pregnant with the couple’s child, a boy, due in June.
And despite warnings from his handlers that he will not discuss the incident at a Rio gas station that resulted in a 10-month suspension from the International Olympic Committee, the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Swimming, Lochte openly talks about the life-altering episode—often without prompting.
“The more celebrity you have, the more you’re under the microscope,” he says. “It’s a bigger picture, bigger than just the swim community. The world is watching. You have to be on top of your game at all times. I didn’t really [understand] that until after the fact. And it was a shocker. You have to be more aware of your surroundings.
“Now, it’s just time for me to put on my grown-up pants and start being more mature.”
Love Conquers All
Lochte is sitting at a makeshift lunch table in a JCC room typically reserved for child care. There’s a break in the action while the crew prepares for the next concept, an office situation that has Lochte lightly “reprimanding” his fiancée for breaking a phantom company’s dress code.
“No more teeny, tiny dresses,” he will say, after which Reid thanks “Mr. Lochte” for the second chance.
If there’s a silver lining in the clouds that formed over his 2016, it’s Lochte’s relationship with Reid, which started last January. The two had exchanged pleasantries on the dating app Tinder but didn’t meet until literally running into one another in a VIP room at Bootsy Bellows, the 1960s art deco-inspired nightclub in West Hollywood, California, co-owned by David Arquette.
“We both did a double-take, and then we reached out and held hands—like we didn’t want to let go of the moment,” says Lochte, who has ties to Fort Lauderdale through his agent, Jeffrey Ostrow.
“It sounds like something out of a movie, but it really happened that way,” says Reid, 25, a model who was Playboy’s Playmate of the Month in July 2015. “We hung out the next day and talked for hours. I didn’t date athletes; they have that reputation as party boys and ‘players.’ So I thought he wouldn’t be my type. Until I met him. He was 100-percent different than I assumed he would be.”
Reid found Lochte to be surprisingly sensitive, endearing and fiercely loyal. “He cares so much about the people he loves,” she says. “He’ll do anything for them.” From the beginning, both spoke about being ready to settle down and start a family. Lochte invited her to spend time with him on weekends during his pre-Olympic training. And then both flew to Rio—Reid, to be with her boyfriend and do some work for a bikini company; Lochte, ultimately, to claim his sixth Olympic gold as part of the 4×200-meter freestyle relay team.
When trouble began for Lochte and swimming teammates Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger and Jimmy Feigen following a night of drinking that bled into the morning of Aug. 14—including an initial allegation by Lochte that the group had been robbed at gunpoint by men with police badges, and, on the flip side, claims from Brazilian authorities that the swimmers had vandalized an advertising sign and urinated in public—Reid stood by her man. When Lochte started to feel like “the most hated person ever” after admitting that he exaggerated the initial story, Reid implored him to keep his head up and stay positive.
“When someone you love goes through something, you go through it, too,” Reid says. “That was the hardest thing, seeing him so down. I kept him off social media; every time he picked up his phone, I would take it away. I didn’t want him reading that stuff and having it get into his head. I didn’t want all the good things he’s done in life to be forgotten just because he made one mistake.”
“I knew, if I was going to lose her, it was going to happen after Rio,” Lochte says. “But she was there by my side the entire time. I knew then that I had to hold onto her forever.”
In the months that followed, a USA Today Sports investigation of official reports and surveillance footage concluded that “the framework of what Lochte said was true.” The swimmers were detained at a gas station by an armed security guard “who flashed a badge”; they were held at gunpoint by guards and “forced to pay money” for damaging a sign. A Brazilian judge also told the newspaper that the “actions of the guards that night may have been illegal.”
Sink or Swim
For the past 24 years, Lochte says, swimming has been everything in his life. Since qualifying for his first Summer Olympics in 2004, the University of Florida graduate has trained nonstop for a steady run of major competitions, amassing 90 combined medals (54 of them gold) in various international championships.
But as he started preparing for his fourth Olympics, he noticed something was missing.
“The longest break I’ve ever taken from the pool, in all those years, was maybe a month,” Lochte says. “Especially for an athlete, you’re beating up your body. It takes a toll. It got to the point about a year before the Olympics where I was just drained. I didn’t want to swim. I wasn’t happy. But it was an Olympic year, so I couldn’t just give up.”
It’s no surprise then that he’s made peace with the 10-month suspension that will cost him an opportunity to compete at this summer’s World Championship meet in Budapest. The break, he says, came at the right time in his life.
He proposed to Kayla following a helicopter ride to the top of a canyon in Malibu, where he had a table with Champagne, flowers and chocolate strawberries waiting. He’s ready to be a father (the couple will marry after Reid gives birth). He’s working to put Rio into perspective. And he’s gradually rediscovering his passion for the pool.
It’s a process that started, of all places, during his time last fall on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” a two-month stint that began with anti-Lochte protestors rushing the stage after his first performance.
“The one thing I learned about myself from that show was that no matter how hard someone knocks me down, I can keep getting back up,” Lochte says. “There were certain points, especially in the beginning of the show, where I had reached the lowest point of my entire life. I didn’t want to go out. I went to bed and didn’t care if I ever woke up. I was depressed. I was sad. I was hurt. And I was embarrassed.
“But I kept coming back to the dance floor and stepping into that limelight. And I kept fighting. I’m so glad I did. I’m such a better person now than what I was heading into that show.
“So, yes, I am coming back. I’m not done swimming yet. There’s so much more I want to accomplish; I won’t stop until I finish those goals. And when I return from this break, I’ll come back a better athlete than I’ve ever been.”