When Ryan Lochte suggests we meet by the fountain at the Grove, the outdoor mall in Los Angeles, it’s understandable, in a Splash kind of way. The man has spent most of his 32 years in the water — of course he’d want to keep it near at all times. By the time he arrives, I’m half-expecting him to dive into the fountain, then emerge with a triumphant “Jeah!”
But no. Lochte barely registers the plumes of water leaping for his attention. To him, there is a more compelling sight on the horizon: a two-story Topshop. “Let’s go shopping,” he says, his sleek seal body practically quivering with excitement. As it turns out, Lochte recently received his first credit card, and he’s dying to use it. “I’m so freaking excited,” he says.
When I ask how it is possible that, at 32, he has never had a credit card before, a cloud of confusion passes over his sunny expression. “I don’t know,” he says slowly. “Everything was like … automated. My entire life.”
Most likely this is because until very recently, Lochte lived the life not of an ordinary mortal but of an Olympic god. As the second-most-decorated male Olympic swimmer in the world, he enjoyed a slate of lucrative endorsements and a reputation as a verbally challenged but lovable foil to his rival Michael Phelps. At least up until this summer, when the story he concocted of a robbery in Rio to cover up a night of drunken carousing caused an international furor, and Lochte came crashing down to Earth.
Now the U.S. Olympic Committee has suspended him for ten months, forcing him to make his way in the world like the rest of us. Well, sort of. At the moment, Lochte is six weeks into Dancing With the Stars, which is “almost kinda like a job,” he says. He can no longer consume 8,000 calories a day, since he is no longer doing 1,000 crunches a day, or swimming at all. “I don’t miss it,” he says flatly.
In a way, leaving behind his old life has given him a kind of freedom. “It’s weird to have this free time,” he says. “But it’s cool because I actually get to do stuff I couldn’t do before.” Like plot an elaborate proposal for his girlfriend — now fiancée—Playboy model Kayla Rae Reid, involving a mountaintop and helicopter. (His first idea was sky-diving, he says, but he thought better of it.) The couple have been together ten months, which may come as a surprise to those who saw Lochte on the Today show in August talking about Tindering in Rio. At the time, Lochte says, he was under contractual obligation to present himself as single, though he won’t say for what company. He will say he wants to be actively involved in planning the wedding. “I want to pick out the cake, the flowers, all of it,” he says. And, of course, the clothes.
“See, even this is weird,” he jokes, chivalrously holding open the door to Topshop. “Because usually I am half-naked.” Actually, Lochte is a fashion enthusiast; he dreams of one day opening a store. “I have the name of it and everything,” he says. “Black by Lochte. Everything in the store will be black. Because you know how everyone wears black clothes? Different brands, but all black.”
Perhaps for obvious reasons, at the last minute, Lochte’s publicist decides to come along. “Work is slow,” she says. “It’s Yom Kippur.”
“What’s that?” Lochte asks curiously.
“It’s the Jewish Day of Atonement.”
“Wasn’t it their Thanksgiving two days ago?”
“That was Canadian Thanksgiving.”
“Oh,” says Lochte, shifting his hands in his pocket and pulling out his phone, which, as it turns out, has been butt-dialing people. “Ha!” he says. “My friend was just on the phone for like five minutes! Ha-ha-ha!”
In retrospect, Lochte was never going to be the straitlaced hero on the Wheaties box. His propensity for trouble was why his mom, a swim coach in Rochester, New York, got him into swimming in the first place. “Because, of course, I was the kid who was always getting into mischief, throwing rocks at cars,” he says. Lochte grew up to become the Dennis Rodman of his sport, dyeing his hair, wearing an American-flag grill on his teeth to the London Olympics, participating in an E! reality show in which he described his lack of verbal dexterity as the result of a “jumping banana” in his brain. But if people thought he was dumb, they also found him, as one news anchor who laughed through her tears after a particularly vacant interview put it, “so cute.”
Which is why the vitriol that rained down on him in the wake of the Rio scandal came as such a shock. “It’s hard because I was always like, ‘Yeah, everyone loves me,’ ” Lochte says. “Because that’s how I am. I love everyone.”
After the story that he told Today host Billy Bush — of how he’d faced down a robber with a gun pointed at his head — began to unspool and his sponsors and friends began to desert him, Lochte says, “I was at my lowest low. The darkest place of my life.” Fearful of reporters, he didn’t leave his apartment in North Carolina for days.
When the news vans finally cleared out, there was one offer still on the table: Dancing With the Stars. He almost backed out. “I didn’t want to put myself out there just yet,” he says. Even after he moved to L.A. for the reality show, “I was scared to show my face in public,” he says.
One day, Reid persuaded him to venture to the Grove, to get a “Freeze” (vegan fro-yo) at Pressed Juicery. As they were waiting, two people approached them. Lochte tensed. “I was so scared they were going to say, like, ‘Get out of here.’ ” Instead, they asked for a picture. “That felt amazing.”
Dancing With the Stars has also helped. The show has a distinct land-of-broken-toys quality. Lochte’s fellow contestants immediately embraced him as one of their own: When two protesters rushed the stage his first week, Vanilla Ice offered to knock out the next one to try it.
Despite his athleticism, dancing did not come naturally to Lochte. Lochte likes to say he’s “a fish out of water,” which is almost literally true, his partner and coach Cheryl Burke confirms. “He’s a swimmer, so he has kind of like that hump on his back,” she told me at their rehearsal the following day, as Lochte flapped awkwardly through salsa moves. “And I almost feel like his arms are not attached to his body.” For the first four weeks, Lochte held his breath to the end of every routine. “Because in swimming you are supposed to hold your breath underwater,” he explains helpfully. “I was like, ‘Dude, you can’t go out there looking constipated,’ ” says Burke.
Still, the audience has been rooting for his underdog story — and occasional shirtless moments. “If I wasn’t on this show, I don’t know what I would have done,” he says in Topshop. “This has really gotten me out of the dark hole.” I mention that his old defender Billy Bush is in a similar hole at the moment. “Yeah. I heard that,” he murmurs noncommittally. Lochte says he is undecided.
Last week, Dancing With the Stars aired an episode in which its stars talked about their most “memorable years.” Lochte did not choose this year, though it has been memorable. Instead he picked 2008, the year he won his first individual Olympic gold medal, a thrill that not even $506 worth of new clothes from Topman (including a pink short-sleeved sweatshirt the publicist and I both find questionable) can beat. “That excitement of getting on those blocks and racing the seven other best swimmers in the world, I lived off that,” he says as the sales clerk hands him his packages. He plans to start training again for 2020 at some point, though he’s not sure when. “When I’m feeling like I want to get back in the water, I will get back in the water,” he says. “Right now, I just want to actually take a deep breath and enjoy life.”
*This article appears in the October 17, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.