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Ryan Lochte’s Wet Hot American Scandal

Revisiting the stranger-than-fiction Rio Olympics swim story that ruined a career, sparked an international incident, and featured a controversial conversation with Billy Bush

(Sam Taylor Illustration)
(Sam Taylor Illustration)

This week, The Ringer is taking time to travel all the way back to … last year. Or a few months ago. We’re diving into the not-so-distant past to check up on what happened to that one lady, or to track the rise of an online social movement. Welcome to Recent History Week, where we’ll explore events you may have forgotten about and remind you why they still matter.

“It’s hard to believe a son would put his own mother through that,” Fox Sports Australia’s Ben Way told Sports Illustrated last August, a week after breaking the news that would come to overwhelm the 2016 Rio Olympics. Following a chance morning encounter with a shook Ileana Lochte on an Olympic Village shuttle bus August 14, Way tweeted about what the fretful swim mom had shared about what her son had told her about his previous evening. “Gold medallist Ryan Lochte has been held up at gunpoint at a party in Brazil,” Way wrote, setting up the case that would launch a thousand quips.

And then all hell broke loose. What happened with Ryan Lochte and three of his fellow Team USA swimmers just under a year ago at a gas station in Rio was part crime fiction, part propaganda, and part experimental novella told by a rotating cast of unreliable narrators. What began as a likely hungover fib to Mother escalated into a series of embellishments, confessions, accusations, and apologies. Lochte’s early story, that he and his buddies were in a taxi before being pulled over by faux policemen, held at gunpoint, and robbed of their cash, quickly crumbled under scrutiny. Brazilian authorities countered that the swimmers had drunkenly ransacked a gas station and were disciplined and made to pay for the damage by security. (Both stories contained elements of the truth.) It set into motion a media and law-enforcement frenzy that involved international air travel drama; two Brazilian court rulings; grainy gas-station security footage; and good ol’ Billy Bush. The constantly evolving details of how four world-class swimmers wound up sitting on a curb at dawn with guns waved in their general direction were at once grave and absurd, uncool and entertaining, problematic and the stuff of lasting Olympic lore.

And 11 months later, it all might finally, blessedly be a thing of the past. On June 8, Lochte and his fiancée, Kayla Rae Reid, celebrated the birth of their first son, Caiden Zane, a boy who, like just about all children out there in the world, will almost certainly at some point in his life play fast and loose with the truth in conversation with his parents and subsequently suffer the consequences. (It’s unlikely those consequences will include global scorn, career ruin, and international legal issues at the age of 32, though.)

A few weeks later, on June 30, Lochte’s 10-month suspension from the U.S. national swim team ended, enabling him to begin what he insists will be a push to swim in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. And on July 14, a Brazilian appeals court formally dismissed charges that Lochte had illegally filed a false robbery report when he told the world, via an oceanfront, iPhone-filmed interview with Bush, that he and his teammates had been jumped by gun-wielding thugs posing as Brazilian police.

But things really felt back to normal last week, when Lochte — who lost multiple sponsorships and parted ways with his longtime CAA agent in the aftermath of Rio — appeared in a weird, self-deprecating commercial playing upon the second-fiddle status that had always defined his career in the years before “wanted for questioning in Brazil” did. Following the highly publicized, sorta-misleading marketing blitz for the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, which promised a swimming showdown between Lochte’s aquatic adversary, Michael Phelps, and a shark, the Nat Geo Wild channel advertised its own offering (SharkFest — the Deep Impact to Shark Week’s Armageddon) by featuring Lochte and mincing no words.

“Ryan Lochte is the second-best-known male swimmer in the world,” a voice-over intoned as Lochte perched on a dinghy in the middle of the sea. “SharkFest on Nat Geo Wild is the second-best-known shark event on TV. … Second place is the first loser.” Here Lochte stared quizzically into the camera, cocking his head like a Labrador retriever who doesn’t understand why a treat is being withheld. “What?” he said. It was extremely on brand.

Of all the details surrounding Lochte’s gas-station incident, the one that has aged most unexpectedly is the involvement of Bush, who worked the Rio Olympics as part of his then-new gig on the Today show after spending many years as the Access Hollywood frontman. As Page Six reported, with what felt a lot like glee, Bush had trouble fitting in with his cliquish new colleagues, and on the morning of August 14 he was hanging out near the beach and shopping with one of his former Access Hollywood coworkers, Kit Hoover. Again, an unplanned run-in — this time not with Lochte’s mother, but with the swimmer himself — had wide-reaching ramifications.

By that point in the morning, details of what had happened to Lochte and his teammates Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger, and Jimmy Feigen were confusing and contradictory. Way had published his report based on the bus-ride conversation with a worried Ileana. An IOC spokesman had flatly denied everything, even going so far as to say that his response was based on information from the USOC and Lochte himself. Ileana, in a follow-up conversation with USA Today, had reiterated what her son told her: that on the swimmers’ way back from a party at the Team France house, where they celebrated the occasion of being finished with their meet, armed men posing as police had held them up at gunpoint and demanded money. Bush was so eager to snag the exclusive interview with Lochte that, with no time to properly bring in a camera crew, he had the conversation recorded by iPhone.

Their chat was a doozy. “We got pulled over in the taxi,” Lochte told Bush, “and these guys came out with a badge, a police badge, no lights, no nothing, just a police badge, and they pulled us over. They pulled out their guns, they told the other swimmers to get down on the ground, they got down on the ground. I refused. I was like, ‘We didn’t do anything wrong, so I’m not getting down on the ground.’ And then the guy pulled out his gun, he cocked it, put it to my forehead and he said, ‘Get down,’ and I put my hands up. I was like, ‘whatever.’ He took our money, he took my wallet, he left my cellphone, he left my credentials.”

The story dovetailed perfectly with an outsider’s perception of Rio: crime-ridden, lawless, not to be trusted, particularly when it came to events featuring bodies of water. (Leading up to the Olympic Games, there had been body parts in the water, and even man-made pools turned murky shades of green. “Chemistry is not an exact science,” explained a Rio official, infamously, about the latter issue.) Already during the Olympic Games, there had been other athletes and coaches who claimed to be victims of crime. The huge, new, sparsely populated, soon-to-be white elephant venues butted up against disrespected favelas. To learn that Lochte and Co. had gotten got was to confirm a whole lot of priors.

But if Lochte had embellished what went down to his mother, he really did so to Bush (who sure does have a way of getting men to self-incriminate!) with his cinematic and borderline heroic rendering of events. What resulted was an ugly end to an Olympics that Lochte began with tough talk about besting Phelps and ended having been thoroughly shown up by a 23-time gold medal winner who was no stranger to legal issues himself. While Lochte did go home with one gold medal as part of the 4x200 freestyle relay, it was fitting that Lochte’s hair, which he bleached before Rio, faded to a shade of silver — a living lifetime achievement award for always being second best.

Lochte would say he was still drunk when he happened upon Bush, but in a later interview with People, in which Bush sought to defend himself from criticism that he hadn’t helped the situation, he implied that Lochte’s state at the time didn’t really matter. “Even when he hasn’t been out all night and completely soaked in cocktails,” Bush said of Lochte, “he isn’t the best storyteller and weaver of thoughts together.”

The version of events Lochte told Bush wasn’t exactly truthful, as it turned out, but neither was the story that Brazilian officials countered with. Their assertion — that the swimmers had manhandled the Rio gas station, peeing all over creation and smashing a soap dispenser and a mirror and breaking down a door and tearing down a poster — was not dissimilar from Lochte’s Bush braggadocio: There were factual elements surrounded, and shrouded, by exaggerations that played nicely into the preexisting thoughts and prejudices of a captivated public.

Did four American athletes act like terrible frat dudes on their way home from a daylong tailgate bender when their cab stopped for gas that early morning? Sure: They went around back and pissed in the bushes or wherever, and Lochte randomly ripped down some sort of canvas poster hanging on a wall, one of those lame, cheesy acts of impulsive drunken puffery, like kicking over a garbage can or smashing a pumpkin or stealing a road sign, that have taken place on city streets and college campuses since time immemorial. Were they generally acting like the kind of entitled, ugly Americans that foreigners have come to expect and despise? Again, no argument there.

The Olympics, more broadly, is an increasingly embattled event of monstrous proportions that oppresses struggling locals in service of an elite, corrupt class of scheming oligarchs and corporations. Having one of its most recognizable, celebrated athletes wreaking havoc on a local business was as symbolic a nightmare for Team USA as that gross green diving pool was for the Rio organizing committee. The backlash was unsurprisingly swift — and Lochte’s even swifter departure back to the U.S., leaving his teammates to twist in the wind and for one, Jimmy Feigen, to have his passport seized and make a five-figure donation to a Brazilian charity in a trade for dropped charges, helped matters not at all.

But when USA Today sent an investigative team to the scene of the crime to examine the more widespread damage that was said to be caused, they found no broken soap dispensers, no kicked-down doors, no shattered glass, and no evidence that there had been hasty replacements to the facility either. In its July 14 decision to drop criminal charges against Lochte, a Brazilian appellate court ruled, reversing a lower court’s decision, that Lochte running his mouth on NBC — which one might call incredibly mindless and selfish and destructive — didn’t constitute the filing of a false report to authorities. While it may not be true that robbers pressed a gun to Lochte’s temple, it is true that uniformed security guards drew their weapons and began yelling, in Portuguese, about handing over cash. With the distance of time, it seems more and more likely that what should have been an unexceptional bit of idiocy quickly escalated, thanks to intoxication and the language barrier, into an international incident.

In that early conversation between Ben Way and Ileana Lochte, Way said that before he knew who her son was, she had described him as being “prone to big nights and that sort of stuff.” (This wasn’t the first time she’s weighed in on Lochte’s evening routines.) It’s an accurate, if understated, assessment of a ridiculous human who rose to fame by being a savant of a swimmer — but also by wearing winged-foot sneaks on his feet and American flag grills on his teeth and filing (then abandoning) a trademark application for a made-up word.

Now that son is a father, posting constant photos of his silly little baby just like the rest of your Instagram friends. If there’s any karma in the world, he’ll finally begin to understand what he’s put his parents through, in ways both serious and benign, for all these years. He has always acted like a child, but that gets less cute when you’re a 30-something man. (In a recent ESPN interview, his father, Steve, described what Lochte was like as a child: When he’d get sent to the showers during swim practice as punishment for horsing around in the pool, Steve reminisced, he’d “plug up the drains so he could skate on his butt across the tile flooring.”)

Earlier this month Lochte, who has been training at USC with coach Dave Salo, was set to officially return to competition at the Los Angeles Invitational, but he pulled out shortly before the meet, citing a lack of preparation thanks to having a newborn son. Lochte says he hopes Caiden Zane can be in the Tokyo 2020 stands to see him perform — though it’s probably a long shot, as Lochte will be pushing 36 by then. (Young Boomer Phelps, meanwhile, is already out there endorsing products.) But hey, Lochte has done enough weird things in the course of his life that maybe there’s a legitimate chance that this man-child, inspired by his baby, will one day play the unlikely role of comeback kid.