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Why next year's Olympics are the most important of Ryan Lochte's career

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Bach sees Olympic flame at the end of the tunnel (1:10)

IOC president Thomas Bach explains the reasoning behind the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (1:10)

Ryan Lochte was sitting on his couch in Gainesville, Florida, watching television with his wife and two young children Tuesday morning when the official announcement came down.

As one of the most decorated swimmers in history, Lochte would seem to be affected more adversely than most athletes with the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics because of the proliferation of the coronavirus. He turns 36 during the original window of the would-be, July 24-Aug. 9 Games. He likely would be 37 when the revised series of splashdowns occurs in Japan.

Given the startling breadth and depth of Lochte's checkered career, the apparent need to command attention, his immediate reaction was somewhat surprising, almost muted.

"This whole thing is not just about me going to the Olympics," he told ESPN.com, clearing his throat for emphasis. "This is bigger than anything. The Olympics will be there; they're postponed, not canceled. The Olympics brings people together, and so we're going to have to take care of each other and wait another year. It's not a biggie.

"I've dealt with so many things, especially over the last four years, this is just another bump in the road."

For the record, Lochte said, he is all-in for Tokyo 2021. It would be his fifth Olympic Games.

"One hundred percent," he said. "I still have a bunch of goals I want to accomplish in the sport. Yeah, age is just a number. You just gotta roll with it. This is good. I get another full year of racing, working on my technique and my skills. I can get stronger.

"Yes, I'm disappointed -- because I was ready. But listen, I'm excited. I have more fuel for my fire."

The fall in Rio

Fully immersed, splashing through the sparkling, bubbling confines of a 50-meter pool, Ryan Steven Lochte is a revelation. To this day he is the world-record holder in the 200-meter individual medley, a testament to his unique speed, strength and, above all, versatility.

Nearly four years ago in Rio de Janeiro, he won his 12th Olympic medal, a gold, as a member of the United States' 4x200-meter freestyle relay. That tied him with three other U.S. swimmers -- Natalie Coughlin, Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson -- for the second most ever in Olympic swimming. One of his relay partners, Michael Phelps, holds the career record, 28 Olympic medals.

To put Lochte's accomplishment in context: Only eight athletes -- regardless of sport -- in the history of the Olympics have won more medals. Tokyo marks what is probably his last chance to add to that monstrous total, an opportunity to refashion his Olympic narrative after a debacle that, to this day, almost defies description.

For, out of the pool, Lochte's performances have not always been as sound and self-assured.

Four days after winning gold, Lochte and three of his Team USA swimming teammates claimed they had been forced out of a taxi at gunpoint in an early-morning confrontation. Rio de Janeiro police, meanwhile, said that the athletes had vandalized a gas station bathroom. Neither turned out to be entirely true. Lochte was charged with providing a false robbery claim and faced 18 months in Brazilian jail, but those charges were eventually dropped.

Lochte later apologized, admitting he had been drunk and had "overexaggerated" his account. He was subsequently suspended by USA Swimming for 10 months, and all four of his major sponsors withdrew their financial support. The celebrity athlete, once the subject of a reality show on E!, was mocked relentlessly across the Internet in a series of cold-blooded memes.

There was another suspension in 2018, this time for 14 months, for using a prohibited intravenous infusion.

In a 2019 episode of CNBC's "Back in the Game," Lochte shared with Alex Rodriguez how far he had fallen. After making more than a million dollars a year, Lochte said, lavish spending had reduced his savings to nearly nothing. He downsized from a 4,200-square-foot house to an 1,800-square-foot apartment.

"I was on top of the world for so long," Lochte explained. "After 2016 happened, immediately, [sponsors] dropped me. Everyone's like, 'I don't want to work with this guy.'

"I was like the most-loved person to the most-hated person, like that."

A new focus

It wasn't obvious at the time, but two months after the incident in Rio, there was an important event in Lochte's timeline toward maturity.

Those who know him well insist it might have been a turning point.

In October 2016, Lochte, 34, announced his engagement to former Playboy model Kayla Rae Reid, 27. When their first child, Caiden Zane arrived eight months later, they decided to push their wedding day forward so their son could walk down the aisle as ring bearer. After a civil ceremony earlier in the year, Lochte and Reid were married in September 2018, before about 100 family and friends.

"No matter what has happened," Lochte said, "Kayla's been there to pick me up. She's just been there 100 percent, and I owe everything to her."

A daughter, Liv Rae, arrived last June as Lochte pointed his training toward the U.S. Olympic trials, which were scheduled for a year later in Omaha, Nebraska.

Lochte (902,000 followers on Instagram) and Reid (395,000) are active on social media. Last Sunday, under quarantine, they created their version of TikTok's "Flip the Switch" challenge.

Earlier this month, at a swim event in Des Moines, Iowa, Lochte told The Register, "I've really grown especially in the past three years, four years since 2016. I've grown so much. My life has changed so much. I'm a different person than I was.

"It's just amazing. I'm so happy with everything that's going on in my life that I'm excited to see what's in store in my next chapter of life."

One more shot?

How far has Lochte swum in pursuit of Olympic excellence? How many miles has he logged since the age of 16 to perfect his craft?

"Holy crap," Lochte said Tuesday morning from the couch, the concept apparently a new one.

It took a few minutes, but, with the help of his agent, Jeff Ostrow, the calculation proceeded. The answer to date: something on the order of 126,000 miles -- some 45 swims across the continental United States.

"I guess we'll have to add a few more on to that," Lochte said, laughing. "One more year to go."

For the last year or so, Lochte has been living a regimented life back in Gainesville, where his family moved from upstate New York when he was 5 years old. Until the coronavirus shut down the pools, his existence consisted almost solely of swimming, then heading home and being a husband and a father.

Now, it's almost exclusively Daddy Time.

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1:57

Phelps on life as an athlete with 2020 Olympics postponed

Decorated Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps joins SVP to discuss what it will be like for the athletes this coming year after the 2020 Olympics were postponed to 2021.

Said Lochte, "It's amazing to represent your country, but my family means more to me than the Olympics. First thing this morning, we deep-cleaned the entire place -- 80 million times in the last two days. I've got Lysol in my veins. Family cleaning -- that's where we are right now."

To what extent is he training?

"Every pool is closed," Lochte said. "Right now, I'm lifting up babies and doing squats with them. Doing a lot of dryland work."

Lochte said he will continue to focus on his numerous events, particularly the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys, 200 freestyle, 100 butterfly and 200 backstroke. He made the finals in both IMs in the TYR Pro Swim Series Des Moines event earlier this month. His best chance to qualify for the U.S. team and medal in Tokyo might be in the same 4x200 freestyle relay event that won him his last Olympic medal in Rio.

"Honestly, if Ryan is truly serious about wanting to get back, this is a great opportunity for him," Phelps said. "An unbelievable opportunity. He has the experience. Sure, taking a little time off, yeah, he's further behind, but he's somebody who is talented enough and knows how to do it. He can get ready for a Games better than anybody. So this extra year could really really benefit him. If that's something that he wants. He just needs to step back and worry about controlling the things he can control."

How realistic is a 13th Olympic medal?

Lochte said he wouldn't have put himself through the pain of training if he didn't believe he could do it.

"It'll be tougher than anything I've done in my life," he said. "But it's definitely doable.

"There's a lot of uncertainty with qualifying and what the schedules will be. As athletes, not everything is going to go perfect -- it's how you roll with the punches. You've gotta stay the course on whatever path you're on. Stay the course."

With thousands around the world dying of the virus, Lochte understands this disruption of an intricate, precisely patterned life is not the priority.

The short-term plan for Tuesday was a walk with the entire family. It was already 77 degrees, and the sun was coming out.

But even as Lochte was out and about, you had to wonder whether his mind had turned back to the moment Tuesday morning when his dream was deferred.

"This is my most important Olympics, my redemption," he explained earnestly. "With everything that's happened in my life the last four years, this definitely was going to be my most important Olympics."

He paused, unhappy with the past tense.

"Is," he said, "going to be my most important Olympics."