August 1, 2012

A Freudian drama has been playing out on our television screens and in the Aquatics Center in London, but it may have been hard to glimpse through all the smoke and fanfare surrounding the fall of Michael Phelps, and the rise of, well, everybody else. The man at the center of this drama is the guy with the bejeweled “grillz” on his teeth, Ryan Lochte—the third of five children and the oldest son of Steven and Ileana Lochte. (Okay, technically the drama has nothing to do with Sigmund Freud; rather, it’s Adlerian, after Alfred Adler, the first psychoanalyst to link personality traits to birth sequence. But never mind.)

Steven and Ileana were and are swimming coaches. Ileana was born in Cuba but moved to the US in 1960 while still a child. (Eisenhower was president at the time, which may or may not have something to do with her unusual nickname, Ike.) When Ryan was born, they lived in Canandaigua, N.Y., which is roughly midway between Rochester and Syracuse, and had two daughters, Kristin and Megan. Eventually, the Lochtes added two more sons, Devon and Brandon, and relocated the clan down to Daytona Beach, Fla.

Like many children of sports coaches, the Lochte kids sought approval in their parents’ arena, spending significant chunks of their childhood in the swimming pool. Ryan’s talent was obvious from an early age, but he was more interested in goofing around, pulling pranks on fellow swimmers, slipping and sliding on the wet tiles of the showers, or falling repeatedly into the pool while wearing a snowsuit. “When he was little, we knew he had natural talent,” Ike has said. “It was just a matter of how to harvest it. He just had so much energy, there was no way we could control it in the water.”

“He was a pain in the butt,” is the way his father described his behavior. “I would send him to go shower when he was messing around. He spent more time in the showers than he did in the pool.”

In other words, a typical middle child acting out, crying for attention.

“In Ryan's first race, it might have been the 25m or 50m free,” his older sister Megan told Sports Illustrated, “he had no idea what he was doing, but, once he dived in, he just took off and killed everyone.” Before he became a teenager, Lochte piled up a lot of district records, but it wasn’t until he got older and started racing against better swimmers that his competitive nature took over. After a loss, he would work harder to make sure it didn't happen again.

Such an eldest son’s drive to win. And that’s the way his international career has played out ever since, accordioning between great achievement and the sort of self-sabotage associated with Jan Brady.

When he was a high-school senior, Lochte fell out of a tree, suffered a concussion, and bruised his shoulder. Three weeks later, he qualified for the 2003 Pan American Games. Five weeks before the 2007 world championships in Melbourne, he wrecked his scooter and had a hairline fracture in his right foot. Five weeks after that, he won two golds (100m breaststroke and 4x200m freestyle relay, both in world record time) and three silvers.

The following July, a few weeks before the 2008 Olympics, Lochte—who has a nice-guy, surfer-dude vibe to him—was so pumped after one training session that he took his skateboard, jumped some stairs, popped an ollie and, in the process, his ankle. Wound up in a Gainesville, Fla., hospital. Fortunately, no broken bones. ''Of course, I ripped him,'' said his father. “He said, ‘Dad, I've got a really good picture of an ollie.’ That’s him, in a nutshell.”

But Lochte still managed to bring home a treasure trove worth of Olympic medals from Beijing that August. There was just one thing that was sure to stoke his competitive fires: Michael Phelps.

Unhappy in the role of second pool banana, Lochte changed his eating habits (from McDonald’s morning, noon, and night), lengthened his training sessions, and let the inner obsessive, overachieving first son rule his life. And as the 2012 games approached, he told everybody who would listen that the reign of Michael Phelps was over; now we were all living in Ryan Lochte time.

And it worked! At least at first. At 7:30 p.m. London time on July 28, in the 400m Individual Medley, Lochte absolutely schooled Phelps, beating him by more than 4 seconds and winning the race over Brazil’s Thiago Pereira by 2.7 seconds.

Only one problem: That middle child still inside Lochte was looking for ways to come out. In the 4x100m freestyle relay, the US team built a half-body lead thanks principally to Phelps’ 47.15 leg, but Lochte went out too strong and faded in the last 50m as France’s Yannick Agnel edged past him to win the gold medal.

Okay, two problems: There are myriad talented swimmers in the world, and it is the exception, not the rule, when one man can dominate the Olympic pool in a number of strokes and lengths. In fact, it has happened exactly twice—Mark Spitz, then Michael Phelps. So when Agnel again won the 200m freestyle on July 30 and Lochte finished just out of the money, the swimming world was returning to a nice democratic normalcy.

But a hint of adversity is the best trigger for the Type-A overachiever in Lochte to emerge. What a difference a day makes. He swam the opening leg of the 4x200m freestyle relay like a man possessed, and before he had left the pool the US had a lead of a full second. It would only get wider. When Phelps’ anchor leg was over, the second-place French team was more than three seconds behind.

So the question is, Will the real Ryan Lochte please dive in? If the eldest son shows up, there’s an excellent chance he will be a monster on August 2 in the 200m backstroke and in the 200m IM, the latter of which he will have to swim against a suddenly resurgent Phelps. If Lochte wins gold in both races, he will, officially at last, be the best all-around swimmer on the planet. If he shows up in an Afro wig like Jan did when Lucy Winter’s party invitation was sent to Marcia by mistake, well, probably not.

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It only took five days of competition, but the host nation finally won its first gold medal, thanks to rowers Heather Stanning and Helen Glover who won the women’s coxless pairs.

Speaking of obvious puns, many of the food concessions in the Olympic Park ran out of basics on Tuesday, leading the Guardian to dub these “The Hunger Games.”

In gymnastics, the US men took a tumble on the pommel horse, especially Latinos Danell Leyva and John Orozco. It was painful to watch, especially Orozco, who is known as a team stalwart. The men finished fifth; the women, on the other hand, soared to team gold. Their best event by far was the vault, in which specialist McKayla Maroney absolutely nailed a difficult vault called an Amanar. “The … best … vault … ever,” was how Marta Karolyi, Bela’s wife and the US national team coordinator, described it. I wouldn't say she was wrong.

Great Britain's women's football match against Brazil was very entertaining. The home side has a sneaky good team, and the 1-0 marker was deserved. In fact, a missed penalty kick should have made it 2-0. And Marta and Co. played a surprisingly thuggish match. But the nicest part was seeing the stands full and the excitement that the British team inspired. Not something that’s traditionally been the case in women’s soccer.

Despite my rant against synchronized diving (see Why I Hate … Synchronized Diving), I was happy to see Paola Espinosa and Alejandra Orozco, the Mexican 10m-platform synchronized diving team, win a silver medal. Diving is one of the few Olympic disciplines in which Mexico has a long and storied tradition. Espinosa, who won the medal on her 26th birthday, is its most prominent standard-bearer. She’s small and pretty, and so her compatriots joke about how she can win a diving competition just by showing up wearing a bathing suit. (But, let’s admit it, Mexicans have no monopoly on sexism.) She first made her presence known as a 16-year-old at the 2003 world championships in Barcelona, where she won a bronze medal in the 3m springboard-diving competition. But it’s in synchro that she’s made her mark, becoming the first Mexican woman to medal in two separate Olympics. (She won bronze with a different partner in Beijing.) And her current partner, Orozco, is 16 now, so there’s a nice symmetry to the story.

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On a more serious note: I despise sports journalists and commentators who, after some hurricane or earthquake or other calamity has just occurred, insist on pointing out to us how fundamentally unimportant sporting events are compared to such tragedies. No duh, Sherlock.

At the risk of sounding even remotely like one of them, I would like to take this opportunity to make a simple point. I find it ridiculous that a country that recently went through the Aurora Dark Knight-mare would be so proud of winning these two gold medals. Let’s face it, American shooters dominate the rest of the world because they get so much more practice than anybody else. And I’m not talking about the range.

“Head Case,” by Bill Vourvoulias.

From “Psyche Job,” the August 1, 2012, issue of V as in Victor.

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