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The Making of an Olympic Sex Symbol

By June 6, 2012News


AFTER finishing three hours of laps, sprints and weighted strokes at the University of Florida’s Olympic-size pool here, Ryan Lochte, the record-setting, gold medal-winning swimmer, was showing the briefest glimmer of fatigue.

“I just want to be done,” he said on the drive to a nearby Hilton, steering his white Range Rover with his knee, sitting far down in the bucket seats, blasting Lil Wayne. He was to spend hours shooting a commercial for a cellphone company, posing shirtless on a locker room set. Tomorrow would bring a double session of exhausting practices to rack up the 70,000 meters he swims weekly in preparation for the London Olympics next month. And then more shoots, more training, a grueling schedule of never-ending shirtlessness.

“If I do really good at the Olympics,” he said, “it’s going to be 10 times worse. Balancing all that stuff out” with swimming, he added, “just drains me.”

It was a momentary lapse in Mr. Lochte’s otherwise laid-back demeanor, so slacker-ready that he rides his scooter when walking his dog. “I’m one of the laziest people,” he’d said, grinning, “outside of, like, working out.”

Right, that. Even if his muscle-bound 6-foot-2 frame and sculptured abs — justifiably famous in their own right — weren’t evidence of his work ethic, the last few months have been a test of Mr. Lochte’s supposed laziness. In addition to training for the Games, where he plans to face off with the sport’s reigning champ, Michael Phelps, he has been on a breakneck tour of national appearances and promotions, making him this Olympics’ all-American swim hunk even before the United States team has been announced.

With his twinkling blue eyes, aquiline nose and dimpled smile, Mr. Lochte, 27, is being groomed to be a breakout Olympic superstar, with millions in corporate sponsorships to match his athletic accomplishments. He is already featured in ad campaigns for Gatorade, Gillette and Nissan. A fitness DVD is also forthcoming.

NBC, which will broadcast the London Games, has referred to Mr. Lochte as “arguably the face” of the American team on its Olympic Talk blog.

Calling him a sex symbol is hardly a stretch. There he is on the cover of this month’s Vogue, arms linked with his fellow Olympic hopefuls Hope Solo, a soccer player, and Serena Williams, the tennis star. Inside, he does his best Blue Steel look next to supermodel Karlie Kloss (she in a Haider Ackermann evening gown, he in a Speedo), a pose that seems to come as naturally to him as his signature backstroke. And Men’s Health recently ranked him No. 1 on its list of best summer bodies.

“We always sort of internally refer to him as the rock star of the swimming community,” said Katie Malone, the director of marketing at Speedo, which has sponsored him since 2006 and has him under contract through 2016. Ms. Malone added that Mr. Lochte was not typical of the sport’s hive-minded athletes, who often do little but train. “If someone’s zigging left, he’s zagging right,” she said. “He wants to stand out.”

RYAN LOCHTE won four medals at the 2008 Games in Beijing, two gold and two bronze, and set a world record in the 200-meter backstroke. But it was Mr. Phelps, with an unprecedented eight gold medals, who basked in the post-Olympics limelight, hitting the talk show circuit, enjoying a slew of lucrative endorsements and hosting “Saturday Night Live.”

Mr. Phelps, with 16 medals to date, needs just three more Olympic medals to have the most in the history of the Summer Olympics. And yet Mr. Lochte is emerging as the bigger story, marketing experts say. He has the golden-boy looks, the regular-dude demeanor. He even has a catchphrase: the exhortation “jeah!” — adopted from the rapper Young Jeezy and pronounced like “yeah,” but, in Mr. Lochte’s case, with a surfer boy slope.

“We’re a little Phelps’d out,” said Bob Dorfman, the executive creative director of Baker Street Advertising and author of the Sports Marketers’ Scouting Report. As a brand, Mr. Lochte’s appeal is “through the roof,” he added. “He has potential for winning golds, and then just the fact that he’s so damn good-looking. If he can’t beat Michael Phelps in anything else, he can beat him in that category.”

Mr. Lochte has also taken care to broaden his image, making it no secret that he wants to move beyond his sport. “I don’t want to be stuck in the swimming world,” he said. “I don’t just eat, swim, sleep — I don’t do that. There’s so much more to me than swimming.” Away from the pool deck, he added, “I hate talking about swimming.” He prefers playing basketball, or practicing his terrible golf game, or drawing surreal nature images.

His style has already set him apart. Like his idol Lil Wayne, he has a hip-hop and skater-inflected look, with flashy jewelry and swaggy high-tops. He has worn diamond grillz over his teeth on the winner’s podium, and designed a pair of emerald rhinestone-encrusted sneakers with Speedo. “He wanted green, he wanted bling,” said Ms. Malone of Speedo, which sells a flip-flop version of the sneaker for $24.99. “He likes to make a statement when he walks onto that pool deck.” Even his swim briefs are neon.

Mr. Lochte’s dream is to eventually become a clothing designer. “I want to be different, and fashion gives me that outlet to do that,” he said, lounging on a couch after a practice in loose basketball shorts, a T-shirt that read “Google Me” and black Dolce & Gabbana slippers. For public events, he steps it up: Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren have dressed him, and he was signed by Ford Models.

His nearby townhouse — which he shares with Ben Hesen, a blond swimmer who often functions as his stand-in for commercials; his younger brother, Devon Lochte, a college student; and Carter, his Doberman — could be called bland bachelor pad, with boxes of Gatorade stacked on the pool table.

But he does have a room-size closet.

“Ho, I think I have about, a total of 130 pairs of shoes,” Mr. Lochte said, warming to the subject. “So you can say I like shoes.” (“Ho” is another Lochte-ism, kind of like the inverse of Homer Simpson’s “D’oh!”) For the Olympic trials this month, he plans to sport high tops with star-spangled wings, like an all-American Hermes. “Don’t duplicate!!” he wrote, posting a picture of them on Twitter.

And he’s already considering his London wardrobe. Having to stick to the official Olympic team uniform designed by Ralph Lauren “stinks,” he said, “because I really want to wear my shoes.” He plans to accessorize with diamond bracelets and some new grillz: “Maybe like red, white, blue — a flag, so when I smile, it’s like, pshoosh!” he said, imitating the sound of a firecracker.

His fashion credentials got a huge boost his month when he became the fourth man to grace Vogue’s cover, in a spread photographed by Annie Leibovitz. Of the cover boys, “I’m the only one who had two girls,” he boasted playfully, adding that the response to his chest-baring image has been “insane.”

“Everyone just started blowing my phone up,” he said. “They’re still doing it, on Twitter, on Facebook.” And his TV spots are in heavy rotation on ESPN, MTV and in prime time. “I randomly see it come on and I’m like, ‘Damn, that’s tight.’ ”

FOR many athletes, this kind of attention may be a distraction. And with a hard-charging business manager, Erika Wright, recently hired to expand his marketability (the fitness DVD was her idea), Mr. Lochte has seen his downtime all but evaporate as he juggles the demands of training with his professional responsibilities outside the pool. It adds up to some growing pains.

“I’m really sick of this place,” he said of Gainesville, as he cut through the University of Florida campus, where he graduated in 2007 with a degree in sports management.

He’d taken a girl out on the town for drinks the night before. “I kind of just let her go and I did my own thing,” he said. That, too, has become difficult: fans ask him to lift his shirt, wanting photos with his abs. By his own admission, he goes on a lot of bad dates. “I’m over the whole college scene,” he said. “The only reason I stay is because I have the best coach in the world. He knows how to motivate me.”

His longtime coach, Gregg Troy, said the secret to Mr. Lochte is to set him loose. “It impacts his performance at practice when we don’t get a little free time from the sport,” he said. He has prescribed a night out, Mr. Lochte reported gleefully, and doesn’t ask too many questions about extracurriculars like surfing and skateboarding, though he drew the line at sky diving. Mr. Lochte will always find a way to make his coach sweat: he once sustained an injury at home, break-dancing.

He has been a bombastic goofball since childhood, when his mom and dad, Ileana and Steve, were his first swim coaches. Now divorced, they still live nearby, in Daytona Beach, and the bro-iness of being the middle son of a large sports clan (two older sisters and two younger brothers, all but one swimmers) surfaces often. At home, Mr. Lochte can’t even be bothered to get off the couch to summon his roommate. Instead, he fired up a remote control car “and I drove it with a piece of paper that said, ‘Hey, c’mere,’ ” he said with a sideways grin.

But he’s also had a competitive streak since he was at least 3, when he remembers orchestrating milk chugging contests with his dad over the breakfast table. He wants to move to Los Angeles after the Olympics, though he still expects to compete, commuting to Gainesville to train.

Mr. Phelps, on the other hand, who at 26 is a year younger than Mr. Lochte, has said this Olympics will likely be his last. He’s a Jeezy fan too: “jeah” was something he and Mr. Lochte used to text each other, when they became buddies after the 2004 Olympic trials, before Mr. Phelps became an athletic paragon.

“My hat is off to him, because he had to deal with so much,” Mr. Lochte said. “I got a glimpse of it this year.”

It was just after another punishing early morning practice; Mr. Lochte had barely been able to climb the stairs to his coach’s office. Yesterday, his legs felt like Jell-O, he said. “Today they feel like cinder blocks.” There was time for breakfast, maybe a nap, before the afternoon training. And then another shoot for the cellphone commercial.

The first one, Mr. Lochte said, “wasn’t bad. It was actually easy. I kind of liked it. ”

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