Sunday, August 5, 2012

Why I Feel Bad For Ryan Lochte

I've spent my socializing time over the past couple of days trying to convince people to have some sympathy for Ryan Lochte.  It's hard--boy, he's done a lot of foolish things this week, all of which highlight a pretty serious ego problem. As much as we as a nation like heroes, we are even more fond of seeing people too full of themselves get knocked down a few pegs.  So it's been a bit of a feeding frenzy, and every time I try to assert some evidence in his defense, I get blasted with new stories of ridiculous things he's done.

But that is my point.  He's totally out of control and has, it seems, been so for a long time.  Not in the traditional way of doing drugs and skipping workouts, but in the potentially more lethal way of believing his own hype.  At least an addict knows enough to be humbled by their failures.  Ryan, it seems doesn't know what to think.  If he's as great as he thinks he is, then it's just not conceivable to him that he would win "only" one individual gold in London.  There must be some mistake.  The look I see in the cameras shoved into his face after every race he doesn't win is one of shock.  What he looks like at his press conferences is haunted.

It all started out in good fun.  When my husband read to me about the "grill" incident I laughed at the ridiculousness.  When Ryan did interviews in the third-person referring to the win for "Lochte Nation" and showed John McEnroe his color-coded shoe closet and his penchant for lifting 600 lb tires I giggled for days.  And when my daughter Cait and I stared at the full-length pose of him in People magazine in the tiniest white suit ever made, flat out on a clear pool effectively making him look like a sex-god angel, we just shook our heads--it couldn't be good, we knew, to enjoy being objectified as much as he does.  And yet we couldn't tear our eyes away; it's like he was made for our viewing pleasure.

It began to change for me as he started to lose and look panicked.  It's not fun for me to watch someone come apart at the seams, and while Michael Phelps looked human, tired, in defeat, Ryan looked lost.  You can tell that he was so convinced that he would win every race--he'd visualized it, he'd killed himself for it, he'd been surrounded by sycophants dependent on his doing it, he'd surely had more tee-shirts made up to commemorate it in advance--that it was almost like he couldn't quite believe the losses were real.

Of course it's quite nice that in the Olympics you still get medals if you come in second or third, and you are supposed to act happy about it, and Ryan did this for his sponsors if not from his heart, but watching his father become enraged from the stands as Ryan finished third in the 200 backstroke (a lovely win by Tyler Clary) and second in the 200 IM (to Michael Phelps in their last head-to-head competition) did something to me.  I know NBC was aware of the psychological windows they were opening up to Ryan and Michael's real lives when they cut between Ryan's red-faced, screaming, disgusted father and Michael's nerve-wracked but cheerleading, Chico-wearing mother and sisters.  How could you not wonder--where are Ryan's brothers and sisters?  Where is his mother?  Where is the love?  Where are the smiles?  Are they really only there when he wins?  When in the press conference he spoke vaguely about moving on with his life, trying to convincingly say he was  moving away from his family in Florida to Los Angeles to train because of the weather being better, I could almost understand it.

The next day we heard from his mother, in an interview with US Weekly.  We already knew from Ryan, in hundreds of ways big and small, that he considers himself a stud.  He talks about sex in the Olympic Village as the sweet compensation for a hard day's work.  That his having a girlfriend in Beijing really cramped his hook-up style but he's free this time around so he's good to go.  All bad enough.  But to hear from his mother in a magazine interview that Ryan is too busy to maintain any relationships so he's forced to have only one-night stands because anything else would be so unfair to the girls (this makes it easier on them, she supposed, because they know not to expect a call the next day) I felt really terrible for him.  If he gets his values from his parents he's bound to be in rough shape.

All kids are self-centered (except maybe the five year old who gave up his birthday presents this week to buy school supplies for poorer kids), and all try out big egos at one point or another.  My own son Ryan says he's too busy to iron his work shirts; it's my job as his mother to remind him that this is true of only the President, if then.  So he pays my daughter Sheyanne a dollar a shirt to do it for him but only if he acknowledges that he's simply too lazy to do it, or that he hates to iron, or that he sucks at it, rather than that this is beneath him.  Everyone needs these reality checks to stay mentally healthy and socially tolerable.  Otherwise...

Phelps with his mother and sisters in Beijing
I know it's especially hard as an athlete to stay humble.  Michael Phelps' mother must work overtime at it, but it is so worth it.  It's actually a sign of her deep love, of wanting her son to be capable of the constant give-and-take of real relationships that leads to lasting peace and happiness; and she's done a good job.  I have no idea what Michael's romantic life is like (thankfully) but when I heard Rowdy Gaines' voice catch Friday night in Michael's last individual race (which he won), and the usually effusive and upbeat Rowdy was speechless for a moment and then forced to explain it with a simple "I'm going to really miss this man," it showed for me what respect people have for Michael, not just for his achievements, but for his depth as a person, and his innate goodness.  He has messed up, of course, most publicly with a drunken driving arrest and the pot-pipe pictures, but his mother says she keeps her foot on his when she can, feeds him information, and thinks he'll be fine.  I agree.  Debbie Phelps, has been a school principal, so not only has she done a great job with her kids, but likely many others.  She helps others on the ADD Moms site.  She wears a duct tape flower for a young Maryland artist-swimmer killed last month in a car crash.  She's as heroic as her son.

The contrast between Michael and Ryan is mirrored in the book I read this week, Chris Cleave's Gold.  In it, two indoor cyclists (it's called a velodrome, the banked indoor track I haven't seen at all this Olympics) compete against each other for three Olympics, training together in London.  One is driven mercilessly by abandonment in childhood, sacrificing relationships and everything else for Olympic gold; the other is nicer, less beautiful, sacrificing Olympic gold for the relationships in her life.  In the first chapter you learn she's stayed home with her sick toddler while her husband, also an Olympic cyclist, goes to Athens.  Later we hear she's missed Beijing due to their daughter having cancer and being on chemo.  Cleve calls having a child with cancer "the Olympics of parenting" and the contrast of human drama versus the staged drama of Olympic athletics is nicely done; I liked the book.  Even the "good" athlete makes some shaky decisions as her third Olympics comes close, wanting it so badly she too becomes obsessed; and the "bad" one teeters on the edge of redemption.  I am hoping for redemption for Ryan Lochte.

Dara Torres was the last swimmer to leave the
pool after the 50-meter freestyle final. (AP Photo)
I am afraid that I might have to wait a long time.   Ryan says he's going to compete and win in Rio in four years, when he's 32 years old, but I think Michael might be right in retiring instead, saying there will be a tide of younger swimmers taking over by then.  If this is true and Ryan still makes the team, the records he will be chasing won't be "first" but "oldest" records, like Dara Torres did.  Last Olympics as she tore her aging body apart every day in the pool and then tried to put it back together again with physiologists, psychologists, massage therapists, nutritionists and pharmaceuticals there was a cautionary article in Sports Illustrated where her husband all but broadcast his impatience for it all to be over, standing off to the side with their daughter in his arms like they were bills to be attended to after payday.  When she announced, after winning three silver medals at age 41 in Beijing that she was going to try to come to London at age 45 to try again for gold, I waited for it--her husband left her weeks later and they quietly divorced.  She went on to have radical knee surgery to try to extend her swimming career and was at Olympic trials this year, missing making her sixth Olympics by a tenth of a second, with that same look I see on Ryan's face of utter devastation.

I hope Ryan was paying attention, and I hope for his sake he learned the right lesson from her--someday this will all be over, sooner than you'd like, and then what will you have left? If you sacrifice too much, if you sacrifice people, it won't be enough.


  1. Thanks for this, Lisa. Beautifully written as always. We decided as a family to dislike Ryan when we saw his shoe room, and our impatience with network coverage didn't allow us to see a more sympathetic and complicated person.

    1. He is a hard guy to like. I'm not there yet, but I'm hoping for it, waiting for it...

  2. Great insight, Lisa. He is doubt. I hope he can save himself and that he doesn't go completely over the edge.