Ryan Lochte has always railed against the confining and conforming limits of a sport in which athletes are nearly indistinguishable from one another under their standard issue goggles and caps. During training for the 2012 Olympics, where Lochte was expected to be an anchor of the U.S. men’s swim team, he continued to risk injury playing basketball and skateboarding despite his coach’s request that he avoid them out of precaution. “Oh, yeah, he’s terrified of me playing other sports,” Lochte said at the time. “He’s waiting for me to come in one day with a broken ankle or something. But I told him, ‘This is me. If I break my ankle right now, this Olympics wasn’t meant to be.’ I’m going to keep living my life the way I’ve been living my life, and nothing is going to change that even if the Olympics are coming up.”
That carefree attitude has served Lochte well in the pool: his 12 Olympic medals are tied with Jenny Thompson for second most in U.S. history, behind only Michael Phelps, Lochte’s longtime friend and rival. And it has made him a draw for reporters. In a sport known for relatively vanilla stars, Lochte has been a Technicolor blast. But Lochte’s damn-the-consequences approach may have finally caught up with him this week, after his claim about being held up at gunpoint in Rio quickly unraveled into a bizarre saga that could leave his reputation in tatters.
In it, he expressed remorse, but also said he was traumatized by what happened. “It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country — with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave,” Lochte said. “But regardless of the behavior of anyone else that night, I should have been much more responsible in how I handled myself and for that I am sorry to my teammates, my fans, my fellow competitors, my sponsors and the hosts of this great event.”
What penalties, if any, Lochte and the three other U.S. swimmers involved in the incident will face is not yet known. In addition to the legal fallout, the swimmers may also have to contend with severe sanctions from the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Swimming. In a statement issued late Thursday night, USOC CEO Scott Blackmun apologized to “our hosts in Rio and the people of Brazil” and promised to review “any potential consequences for the athletes.”
USA Swimming, the sport’s governing body in America, said it too would determine whether the incident violated their code of conduct. The organization has meted out punishment beyond the law before, and those cases were without international ramifications. In 2015, Phelps was barred from competing at the world championships as a consequence of his DUI arrest the previous year, despite his having served the legal sentence for the charge.
In Rio, Lochte arrived with a shade of Elsa blue hair, a dye job he received while at training camp in Atlanta. It was only the latest expression, he said, of his personality. “It’s a bold statement, it’s different,” he said at the start of the Rio Games. “That’s me, that’s my personality, just being different.” In 2012, Lochte covered his teeth in a stars-and-stripes grill for a medals ceremony but was reportedly asked not to wear it again. “I am trying to make swimming bigger than the sport is now,” he told TIME in 2012. “The only way to do it is by showing your personality out there.”
Riding his newfound fame after London, Lochte and his family participated in a TV reality show, “What Would Ryan Lochte Do?” which made sport of his immature hijinks for a single, short-lived season. He’s also talked for years about his desire to start a clothing line and move into the fashion industry after his swimming career ended. So far, he’s designed a pair of sneakers with Speedo and a gaudy set of sunglasses featuring his hallmark expression, ‘Jeah,’ but has yet to produce a full apparel line.
It’s hard not to see Lochte’s attention seeking in both contrast and reaction to Phelps. Just a year apart, Lochte, 32, has seen his spectacular success overshadowed by the younger Phelps’ history-making career. But those who know him well say Lochte’s need to chart his own course was apparent well before he began living in someone else’s shadow.
His mother Ileana, who was born in Cuba and emigrated with her family to the U.S. when she was 7, was Lochte’s first swim coach and had trouble getting her son to play by the rules even then. “I would let him swim with the older kids for warm-up, and then send him out [of the pool], because it would take him the rest of the practice to finish with his shower and play in the locker room and the slip ’n slide,” she told TIME in 2012.
His father coached him next and wasn’t as forgiving. “He was a hard ass,” Lochte said. “He would pull me out of the water and start yelling at me. It was scary.” (Lochte’s parents have since divorced.)
Lochte suffered knee injuries in recent years and moved to Charlotte, N.C., to recover and train in earnest for Rio. He changed coaches and seemed motivated by Phelps’ return to competitive swimming and the possibility of racing against him again at the Olympics. He made it back, but their rematch in the pool didn’t live up to the hype. The 200-m individual medley was supposed to be their final Olympic showdown. Lochte started fast but then faded. His longtime rival took gold, while Lochte finished off the podium in fifth.
Two days later, he stepped into that taxi with three teammates on the relay who helped him win his only medal in Rio. It may well be his last.