In My Opinion

Fowler: Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte explains his move to Charlotte

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comOctober 8, 2013 

When you are an 11-time Olympic medalist and generally considered the best male swimmer in the world, you can train anywhere you want to.

Ryan Lochte told The Observer Monday in an exclusive interview he has decided to train at SwimMAC Carolina through the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, saying of Charlotte: “I love this city.”

“I was at a college town, at the University of Florida for so long,” Lochte said Monday. “I love that place to death. But I’m getting to a point in my life where I’m getting older and it’s time for a change.”

I talked with Lochte one-on-one after his first practice under SwimMAC head coach David Marsh at Queens University’s sparkling new pool. The plan is for Lochte to live in Charlotte for the next three years, training under Marsh and alongside his best friend, former N.C. State swimmer Cullen Jones, as they all prepare for a joint run at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

This is a coup for Charlotte, the SwimMAC Carolina club based in Charlotte, Marsh and his staff. Lochte has based his training at the University of Florida under coach Gregg Troy for more than a decade, and he became an international swimming force.

Lochte, 29, is also something of a sex symbol. Every time he has swum at Charlotte’s UltraSwim meet over the past several years he has been greeted with screams from teenaged girls who sound like they took a wrong turn on the way to a “One Direction” concert. Lochte is so popular that he has more than a million Twitter followers. He also has come up with his own catchphrase (“Jeah”), dabbles in fashion design, enjoys a good party and starred in a reality TV show based on his life earlier this year.

Lochte said a number of things drew him to Charlotte – not just Marsh and fellow Olympic gold medalist Jones, who calls Lochte “the best athlete in the world when it comes to swimming.”

Said Lochte: “They host the UltraSwim here and I’ve been coming to this meet for eight, nine years straight, and I mean I love this city. I wanted to move to a city, but I didn’t want to go to like L.A. or New York where it was really big and just chaos. This is perfect. ... And my best friend, Cullen Jones – he’s here. I love it.”

Lochte also said he will live alone for the first time in his life in Charlotte. He has gotten a place in the same complex where Jones lives, but just down the hall so he can have his own space.

Jones and Lochte bonded over hip-hop music on a national-team trip in 2006 – it began with Lil Wayne – and have frequently been roommates on U.S. team trips ever since. They had also thought about moving to Los Angeles and training together this year, Jones said, but Jones has achieved the greatest success of his career in the past two Olympic Games under Marsh and ultimately did not want to leave Charlotte. So instead he tried to convince Lochte to come to Charlotte and join SwimMAC’s Team Elite, which placed five members on America’s 2012 Olympics team.

“I said, ‘Just try it,’” Jones said. “I think the city of Charlotte has a lot to offer him. One thing about Charlotte is we take care of our own. We love our own.”

Marsh is known for his unique training methods, which emphasize quality of work over quantity and include innovative approaches to dry-land training. Marsh did not actively recruit Lochte to come to Charlotte – although Jones certainly did – but the coach was very happy to see Lochte dive into the Queens University pool Monday morning for Lochte’s first workout in Charlotte.

“It’s almost like back when I was a graduate assistant at Auburn and Bo Jackson was running,” Marsh said. “You’d hand him the ball in a game and everybody in the stadium would hold his breath. Ryan dove in the water today and the way he moves through the water, it is very special.

He has a relationship with the water I’m not sure even he understands. It is fish-like – the way we would all like to be. But he has a mastery of it.”

Lochte said he was committed to staying in Charlotte for what he called “the long haul,” through the 2016 Olympics. He will be 32 by the time those Olympics are held. There would be only one reason why he would leave Charlotte earlier than 2016, he said.

Said Lochte: “I’ll be here through 2016, unless something happens where I start doing really bad in the sport. Then I’ll have to go back to where my swimming career started, back in Florida. But I don’t plan on getting any slower – 2016 is my biggest goal. I want to stick it out here and see what me and David Marsh can do.”

Lochte said his usual practices at Florida constituted churning out thousands of yards per day. He said he wanted to become more of a sprinter in every stroke in the 100-meter distances under Marsh, who is known for being particularly adept at coaching those races.

“One thing I had been lacking in the past was my sprinting capability,” Lochte said. “I can still sprint somewhat, but not with the best like Cullen.”

Lochte also said that he expected his life to be quieter than it was in Gainesville where, he said, he had become “too big.”

“I couldn’t go anywhere without someone wanting to take a picture or asking for an autograph,” he said. “I was a big fish in a small pond there. I loved it. It was wonderful for me. but I’m just at a point in my life where I need a new change.”

Marsh said he knew Lochte would continue to have many outside interests and would encourage that, but that he also hoped the swimmer would use the move to Charlotte to simplify his life.

“To me as a coach,” Marsh said, “I’d like to see the entourage effect reduced substantially so that he can relax and just be himself.”

Said Lochte: “In my next swimming career, which started this morning, I want to train for some sprint events now. ... I’m not done yet. I think there’s a lot more I can accomplish in the sport of swimming. I want to take my swimming to a new (level), and I want to bring it here to Charlotte.”

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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