BEIJING - Listen to Ryan Lochte talk and your mind conjures images of Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Wooderson from Dazed and Confused. While most athletes rely on a carefully scripted series of businesslike cliches, he is as mellow as the Florida surf at low tide.
It's easy to overlook, when you listen to his version of skateboarder Zen, that he might be the second-best swimmer in the world. But it's true. If there was no Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte just might be Michael Phelps, the swimmer favored to win more gold medals than you can count on one hand at these Olympics.
Some things would have to be different, though. While Phelps of Rodgers Forge understands his role as the sport's ambassador, doing countless interviews and appearing in myriad commercials, Lochte said he would "shoot himself" if he had that kind of life.
In fact, if he could go the rest of his career without ever doing another interview, he would jump at the chance.
"I get more nervous for doing interviews that I do my races," Lochte said. "I kind of like doing my own thing. I like being low on the radar all the time. Not being like this big 'idea,' I guess. I just like surfing, skateboarding and swimming, and not many people pay attention to that."
The nice thing for Lochte is that he is virtually anonymous outside the swimming world, but that could be about to change. Lost in all the talk of Phelps' quest for eight gold medals and breaking Mark Spitz's record is that Lochte could derail the whole chase the very first night of the competition with an upset in the 400-meter individual medley.
At the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in June, Lochte pushed Phelps harder than he has ever been pushed in the IM, as he and Phelps both beat the old world record. Lochte finished second, but he matches Phelps stroke for stroke in the water. Phelps' turns, the best in the sport, were the only thing that staved off an upset.
"I think Ryan Lochte is the best thing to happen to Michael Phelps," said Mark Schubert, director of USA Swimming.
Lochte, who considers Phelps a close friend, could hardly have taken a more different route than his rival to the record books. His father, Steve, was a swimming coach, so Lochte was always around the pool growing up in New York and then Florida. But the free-spirited wild child hated swim practice. He vividly remembers intentionally getting kicked out, then hiding in the bathroom where he clogged all the toilets and sinks and emptied all the soap dispensers onto the floor in rebellious protest. When he got tired of that, he broke into the candy machine.
"I used to do a lot of that stuff just for fun," Lochte said.
Fun, in fact, still dictates a majority of Lochte's choices. He suffered a hairline fracture in his ankle while skateboarding months before the 2007 FINA World Championships in Melbourne, Australia, and he still broke a world record in the 200-meter backstroke. When he finished second in the 200-meter individual medley to Phelps, he wore a set of diamond-studded grills on his teeth as he took the medal stand. Phelps couldn't keep a straight face, even as the national anthem was playing.
At the Golden Goggles Awards in January, he wore a white suit with a black shirt and red tie that made him look like a casino owner. Other than winning a gold medal, he would like nothing more than the chance to skateboard on the Great Wall while in China. He likes playing with his dog, which he named Carter as a tribute to rapper Lil' Wayne, his favorite musician. At the University of Florida, one of his favorite activities was egging houses.
"I'll try anything if it's fun," Lochte said. "It's like at world championships when I wore those grills. That's just me. It wasn't me trying to show off; it's just me having fun."
All that goofing around tends to mask an intense focus in the pool. Phelps has seen it up close more often than anyone else.
"As a competitor, when we're both standing behind the blocks, we both want to win," Phelps said. "We both love what we do. I think when we're out of the pool, we can both joke around. I think we both know when to turn it off, and when to focus."
Lochte's greatest strength might be that he doesn't overthink life, in or out of the water. And unlike a lot of swimmers, he believes he can go faster than Phelps.
"Honestly? I really don't feel like swimmers feel like that," Lochte said. "I bet there are some, but he's so dominant in everything he swims, most swimmers are just trying to get second because they don't feel like they can beat him. That's definitely not the case with me. I always feel like I can beat him."
He'll have his first shot tomorrow in the first race of the Olympics. If Phelps doesn't swim his best, expect Lochte to steal the win and break the hearts of every NBC Sports executive.
If he finishes second, well, no big deal.
"I'd like to win every event I swim," Lochte said. "That would be amazing. I've done all the work, and I'm really confident I can do that. If I don't, I don't, and it's not the end of the world. I'll still be able to surf when I get home, and skateboard."