During a break from training camp in Opatija, Croatia, last week, swimmers on the U.S. team took a dip in the Adriatic Sea. As coach David Marsh watched from the rocky beach, he found himself marveling at Ryan Lochte’s affinity for the water.
“While the other guys were diving 10 feet down, Ryan was effortlessly going 40 feet down,” Marsh said. “He’s most content when he’s swimming. He’s the closest thing to a fish on our team.”
Lochte’s instinctual aquatic athleticism has given Marsh the confidence to experiment with the swimmer’s technique. During the FINA world championships that commence Sunday in Kazan, Russia, Lochte plans to unveil a new flip turn. Instead of rotating onto his stomach immediately after pushing off the wall, he will stay on his back for 10 meters.
“He kicks faster on his back, so he will delay his full rotation to take advantage of that speed,” Marsh said. “He’s busting out a new move. Kind of reminds me of an otter, which is my favorite creature in the water.”
In addition to testing his innovative turn, Lochte will use the world championships as a barometer of his progress under Marsh with one year to go before the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Lochte, 30, has won 23 world medals during his career and would be in line to significantly increase that haul, but he will be limited to two individual events in Kazan plus one to three relays, depending on the coaches’ decisions. At last year’s qualifying Pan-Pacific meet, Lochte had not fully recovered from a knee injury, so he made the U.S. roster only in the 200meter freestyle and the 200meter individual medley, in which he holds the world record of 1 minute 54 seconds, set at the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, China.
“Last year was one of my worst years and I have to deal with what I qualified in,” Lochte said. “I’m throwing that year out. But the big show is definitely 2016. This is all stepping stones.”
Rio was on Lochte’s mind when he decided to leave the comfortable cocoon of Gainesville in 2013 and join Marsh’s SwimMAC Carolina club in Charlotte, North Carolina. Lochte, a Daytona Beach native, had spent 12 years as a University of Florida and postgraduate swimmer with coach Gregg Troy, and had records to show for it, as well as 11 Olympic medals, which ties him for second all-time with Matt Biondi and Mark Spitz and behind Michael Phelps, who has 22.
Lochte wanted a change, not only in his environment but in his training routine and competitive goals.
“I went to Charlotte because I wanted to learn how to swim different events — more sprints — so I can swim more events at the Olympics,” Lochte said. “Dave is the mad scientist of swimming. He puts certain terms in perspective for me. He breaks down every little part of your stroke.”
Marsh has helped Lochte adjust his butterfly stroke into a more economical, undulating movement and his freestyle stroke into a more open, robust movement.
“The key is to swim like a 100-meter swimmer, although the 200 IM is definitely his sweet spot,” Marsh said. “It’s new territory for him because it requires more power and utilization of his underwater kicks.”
Marsh’s practices are unconventional. His athletes often alternate rope-climbing or calisthenics with laps in the pool. Marsh, 56, a Miami native, took up swimming in the 10th grade at Miami Southwest High after he was cut from the baseball team. He’d grown up swimming in west Miami-Dade County canals and was part of an athletic family that included his sister, distance runner Loretta Marsh. At Auburn, swimming with Rowdy Gaines and under coach Richard Quick, Marsh was NCAA champion and ranked sixth in the world in the 100 backstroke.
Last week, Marsh was named one of the “30 Most Influential People in Swimming in the Past 30 Years” by USA Swimming and Speedo USA.
“Most of my coaches took practices out of a book, and most programs tend to be structured and distance-oriented, but Richard was my mentor because he was willing to mix things up,” Marsh said. “Keeping Ryan fresh is the main thing I’ve been able to offer him. I try to read and react to my athletes on a daily basis. The goal, at the right time, is to get them to push beyond their boundaries.”
Lochte said his motivation hasn’t waned.
“I love the sport of swimming,” he said. “It’s fun. I always told myself I’d quit when I stopped having fun. I love traveling. I still love the excitement of getting on those blocks and racing.
“Swimming is like my home. Every time I step in the water it’s my own universe.”
Lochte won’t be racing against Phelps in Kazan. Phelps, 30, is serving the second part of his punishment by USA Swimming for violating its code of conduct. Phelps was arrested for DUI in Baltimore in September. He also was arrested for DUI as a 19-year-old in 2004. He entered a treatment program and served a six-month suspension from swimming, returned to competition in April but was also banned from the world championships.
Nor will Lochte swim against Japan’s Kosuke Hagino, reigning Swimmer of the Year who swept both IMs and beat both Lochte and Phelps at the 2014 Pan-Pacific championships. Kosuke broke his right elbow when he fell off a bike last month.
“There’s a bunch of other people out there so I’m not focused on the fact that Phelps and Hagino aren’t going,” Lochte said.
Lochte knows plenty about freak injuries. He injured his left knee while break dancing in 2009. On Nov. 1, 2013, Lochte tore one ligament and sprained another in his left knee while greeting fans at the University of Florida. He was sidelined for two months. He had already taken significant time off following the 2012 London Olympics to star in a reality TV show, What Would Ryan Lochte Do? — which highlighted the goofy, free-spirited, surfer-dude side of his personality. But Lochte decided to come back and aim for the 2016 Games. In May 2014, he re-tore one ligament; he kept training with a strap on his ankle.
“I should have stuck with rehab better and taken better care of myself out of the pool,” he said.
Marsh said leaving Gainesville and moving to Charlotte has forced Lochte to mature.
“The first year he wasn’t very serious,” Marsh said. “He was in between living the college town life and being a quasi-celebrity and deciding to be a committed athlete. He arrives at worlds in the best overall fitness I’ve seen him in.
“Ryan is a fun-loving, charming guy with a genuinely golden heart. We have a hard time getting him to walk by people. I’d like to see him — and all my athletes — transition away from having an identity wrapped up in swimming. Instead of trying to be best in the world, try to be better for the world.”
Although Lochte credits his personal growth to his move, he hasn’t let go of his hopes to swim an ambitious program in Rio, one that might not include the grueling 400 IM but could include four or five individual events and three relays.
He will be 31, but hasn’t contemplated a retirement date.
“I have goals for my program next year, but I’m going to keep that to myself and keep the world guessing,” he said. “I’ve got to keep you all on your toes.”