He's the Rodney Dangerfield of American Olympians: Ryan Lochte, 12-time Olympic Games medalist, can't get no respect.
After six gold medals in four Olympics, a staggering 90 major international medals and several runs holding various world records across multiple events, Ryan Lochte made his final appearance in an individual Olympic Games race Thursday night, finishing fifth in the finals of the 200-meter individual medley.
It was billed as his final matchup with Michael Phelps, his friend, fellow American and close rival in the swimming pool. From a superficial view, it's a rivalry Phelps has easily won -- he took gold again in this race -- although Lochte has landed his own punches.
With 26 Olympic medals to his name -- an unthinkable 22 of them gold -- no one is even close to matching Phelps' accomplishments. Not even Lochte himself would suggest that. But Olympic swimming fans -- that is, fans who only turn up once every four years to root Team USA on to victory -- have done themselves a disservice by adoring Phelps at the expense of Lochte.
Even as we close the books on a long, storied history of competition between Phelps and Lochte, it's worth considering whether we took the time to appreciate Lochte for what he was -- that is, the greatest Olympic athlete in United States history.
Other than Phelps, of course.
It's an easy argument to make: Lochte's 12 Olympic medals have him tied for eighth all time -- in the world. If he had added a medal Thursday, he would have moved into a tie for fourth place.
Among American athletes, Lochte's medal count is tied for second all time. His six golds are impressive on their own, but take Phelps out of the equation and he'd have two more. I say that not to make some flimsy claim that Lochte is better than his record shows, but to point out that in his long, accomplished Olympic career, he's been utterly dominant against the rest of the world.
Other than Phelps, of course.
In some ways, that's just how the narrative goes. A gold medal is a gold medal, and every athlete understands the difference between first and second place. While we elevated Phelps to god-like status -- although it hasn't been hard, given his unprecedented dominance -- Lochte became a natural counterbalance to Phelps' heroism. Never mind the fact that no other swimmer on the planet was as much a threat to Phelps as Ryan Lochte.
There's the matter of Lochte's personality coloring his legacy, for better or for worse. He's always been a fun-loving airhead, someone who left us shaking our heads more often than he left us in awe.
This is, after all, the guy who tried to coin "Jeah!" as an exclamatory catchphrase, and whose brief reality TV career portrayed him as a handsome bimbo. He's the guy who once said his cell-phone screensaver was, "Rocks." And he's the guy who said this quote, about his artistic aspirations and his love of drawing:
"The drawings that I do now are out of this world. I'll start out with a cloud on top and then instead of how, you know, rain goes down, I'll have rain going up."
And now, he's the guy at the Rio Summer Olympic Games who dyed his hair a silvery white -- only to have the pool's chlorine color it with a tinge of green.
Don't get me wrong, Lochte's prowess in interviews range from hilarious to unspeakably cringe-worthy. But none of these instances are bad marks on Ryan Lochte's character, but they've affected how we think of him, and distracted us from the fact that he's the second-greatest swimmer we've ever seen. If he had Kobe Bryant's maniacal intensity, we might regard Ryan Lochte with more reverence for his abilities. But because he's a mild-mannered guy who loves to smile and doesn't take himself too seriously, we've made the mistake of not taking him seriously enough.
To Lochte's credit, he's not a man who seems too concerned with his legacy. He's aware of his accomplishments, and he's also aware of the long shadow cast by Michael Phelps. It's inspiring to see the pair get along so well, when their paths to professional glory so often intersect one another.
But for all of the much-deserved fanfare that follows Phelps around, it's a bit odd that one of the greatest Olympians ever can tottle around in such relative anonymity, earning headlines for his hair color more than his achievements. If he were competing in any other era, wouldn't the admiration now draped on Phelps be lavished on Lochte? Doesn't that mean we've made a mistake?