Who Gives a Sh*t About Ryan Lochte?
Peacock’s documentary tries to address what happened in Rio, but gets caught up in the empty question of Ryan Lochte’s legacy.
I saw Ryan Lochte at a Chuy’s once.
For the uninitiated, that’s a Tex-Mex restaurant chain with killer chimichangas—one of many chain restaurants you’ll find in Gainesville, Florida, the hometown the Olympic swimmer and I share. Years ago, in late high school or early college, some friends and I were chowing down when we saw Lochte just a few tables away with his own crew. When you hail from a college town like Gainesville, you come to relish these rare encounters. After all, how often are you going to run into someone in your hometown that anyone outside your hometown cares about? As with all of these small-town run-ins, nothing really happened; it just became one of those funny stories we’d remember every now and again.
Next to Tom Petty and the Florida Gators, Ryan Lochte is probably Gainesville’s best-known export. This was especially true in the 2010s, when Lochte converted his athletic prowess into broader cultural fame, netting an appearance on 30 Rock in 2012 and, a year later, his very own short-lived reality series, What Would Ryan Lochte Do? (Think Jersey Shore but less fun because, well, it’s set in North Central Florida.) Over the years, Lochte cultivated not only a reputation as a world-class athlete with handfuls of medals and a few world records, but also as the ur-party-bro with a viral catchphrase: “Jeah!”
Then Rio happened.
In Deep with Ryan Lochte, an hour-long profile of the swimmer now available on NBC’s freshly launched streaming service, Peacock, examines Lochte’s 2016 Olympics scandal, in which he lied and said he and two other swimmers had been the victims of an armed robbery. It also zooms out to take a look at Lochte’s reputation over the years—and his extremely unlikely bid to make the team for the now-postponed Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Toward the beginning of his doc, Lochte makes the case for this vanity project’s existence: “Everyone’s been [asking], ‘Well, where the hell’s Ryan Lochte?’” he says. This immediately raises two questions: Have they? And if so, Why?
In Deep strains to make the case that Lochte is a different person now than the goofy, party-hardy twentysomething we got to know so long ago—back when we were all, perhaps, a little more innocent. Patton Oswalt supplies the narration, both scripted and delivered with equal parts earnest investment and calculated snark clearly designed to ease any disdain one might feel toward this project or its subject. It kind of works... some of the time.
So how has Ryan Lochte changed? Well for one thing, you’ll notice that while he used to be 25 years old, now he’s 35 years old. Also, he’s procreated! Lochte and his wife, model Kayla Rae Reid, have two young children. Some of In Deep’s most charming moments observe Lochte toting his kids around, changing diapers mid-workout, and complaining about Gainesville’s “crazy” traffic. (Laugh it up, big-city dwellers, but University Avenue during rush hour is no joke!) In these moments, Lochte almost sounds like your average suburban dad—that is, until the doc finally gets around to digging into what actually happened in Rio.
As In Deep notes, Lochte became a poster boy for a certain kind of arrogant white privilege after his Olympics incident. As Lochte explains it now, he and two of his fellow team members went out and got wasted after they won the gold medal. Around 6 a.m., while on their way back to the Olympic village via taxi, they stopped to relieve themselves at a gas station, where they found the bathroom door locked and chose to urinate on some nearby bushes. Lochte admits to pulling down a sign. As they began to leave, he said, their taxi was stopped.
What happens from here gets fuzzy—both in old accounts and still to this day.
Both sides agree a security guard showed Lochte and the two other swimmers with him badges and demanded that they pay for the damages to the gas station before they left. The guards did not speak English and the swimmers did not speak Portuguese, rendering the situation more confusing and fraught. (Whether or not a person was there to translate seems to depend on which account you read.)
Either way, both sides agree that the security guards eventually drew their guns to detain the swimmers, and that after handing over $40 or $50, the three departed. Lochte says afterward he called Reed, whom he had been dating for around six months at the time. Reed says it was hard to understand Lochte, who was both drunk and scared. Lochte says his mother overheard the conversation and told a reporter her son had been robbed at gunpoint. The story went viral.
But NBC’s approach to re-reporting the fiasco now is undeniably strange. Interviewees include Billy Bush, who conducted the first on-camera interview with Lochte later that Sunday morning—and would later spar with Natalie Morales and Al Roker on air over the incident, downplaying how much Lochte had lied about it. Neither Morales nor Roker, both of whom called Bush out on air, appears in the doc—leaving Bush as the only true third party speaking. (Other interviewees include former Rio Civil Police chief Fernando Veloso.) And perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s no mention at any point of the Access Hollywood tape scandal that would lose Bush his job just months later for snickering with Donald Trump about sexual assault.
“I have no dog in the fight here,” Bush told Morales and Roker in the Today segment that went viral in 2016, “but you guys both seem to be very hopped up that Lochte has done the ultimate, the worst thing.”
During his In Deep interview, Bush shrugged the whole ordeal off with palpable condescension. “What [the swimmers] did do was pull down a loosely attached poster,” he said. “Then they had to pay for the damage of the poster they pulled down with guns drawn. Now you can call that restitution for damage—or you can call it a shakedown.”
“Who amongst us has not gone to the bathroom outside or behind a public facility or something if the door was locked?” he adds with a smirk. “I don’t know; if you're the person who would never do such a thing please stand up and be recognized so that we can applaud the wonderful person you are.” (As someone who has neither publicly urinated nor fabricated a story about armed robbery, I will accept my medal from Bush at any time.)
We also see a now-ironic archived interview with Matt Lauer, who asked if Lochte thought participating in the next Olympic Games could “begin to erase the damage to your legacy that’s been done.” Lochte both apologizes and posits that yes, a good performance in Tokyo could begin to mend things.
As many noted at the time, the main issue with the Lochte debacle was not what actually happened on the night, but his decision to lie about it afterward. Lochte’s story initially validated some of the darkest fears surrounding Olympians’ safety in Rio. Jiu-jitsu national champion Jason Lee had already been briefly abducted by police weeks before Lochte shared his story, and the swimmer’s account only added more fuel to the fire. It’s not hard to imagine why so many Brazilians and Brazilian-Americans felt deeply insulted and angry over his false claims—enough to protest Lochte’s Dancing with the Stars appearance months later.
All of this circles back to the central question that In Deep wants us to care about: Can Ryan Lochte earn back his legacy?
From an athletic standpoint, it’s a long shot. At 35, Lochte would be the oldest American man to swim in the Olympic Games. Lochte’s greatest professional rival, Michael Phelps—often portrayed as the more serious (and far superior) swimmer in contrast to Lochte’s rowdier reputation—retired at that same age. And as Lochte himself admits, the postponement due to coronavirus, though necessary, will make things harder: “I’m not getting any younger.” Lochte’s past achievements in the sport will likely serve as his last big milestones.
But if we’re being honest with ourselves, In Deep is not about Lochte’s legacy as an athlete; it’s about his image as a person or, more specifically, a celebrity. What happened in Rio, we hear time and time again, was a horrible “mistake.” When Gainesville locals and Lochte’s loved ones share stories about his dedication to his training, his fans, and his family, they’re not trying to convince the International Olympic Committee that Lochte should be allowed to swim again. They’re trying to convince us viewers at home that he’s been judged too harshly.
As Lochte cradles his son for the cameras toward the end of the doc, he insists that he doesn’t care about his reputation anymore. “I used to care so much about what people thought about me, and trying to always please everyone,” he says. “And I can’t please everyone; my job is to please my family. All the gold medals, and all the world records, and everything that I’ve done in my past was success but in a different life.”
It’s difficult to figure out why Lochte would participate in a project like this if that were really the case, but I’m inclined nonetheless to take him at his word. Because if nothing else, In Deep proves just how empty our understanding of legacy is. Ryan Lochte has already cemented his place in history as an athlete. Now, he’s a great swimmer who lives a quieter life with a perfectly nice-seeming family. Good for him! But why do we need to think about him anymore—especially with all the other, much more pressing issues that have emerged in the public consciousness since the summer of 2016?
The desire to remember Ryan Lochte as not only a great athlete but also a good person says more about our society than it does about him. At some point, we need to reckon with our tendency to put athletes, actors, and other public figures on pedestals. Until then, we’ll just keep getting sucked into the same ultimately pointless conversation about various disgraced celebrities’ reputations. In the end, In Deep with Ryan Lochte only made me wonder why we are so desperate to relate to athletes and movie stars as Good People when basic logic tells us that their moral character can vary just as widely as any randomly selected person sitting a few feet away from you at a local restaurant.
Anyway. I saw Ryan Lochte at a Chuy’s once. It was fine.