Is Ryan Lochte the new face of U.S. swimming?

Move over, Michael Phelps, here comes Ryan Lochte
By John Henderson
The Denver Post

OMAHA — The four young buxom women in the short shorts stood in the CenturyLink Center on Friday morning holding up big letters that spelled “JEAH.”

For those not conversant in Lochtese, that is Ryan Lochte’s catch-all phrase. Loosely translated, it means everything is cool. He’s saying that a lot these days. So are his bevy of sponsors. So are his marketers. So is his growing legion of tanned, long-legged fans.

So is USA Swimming.

In an Olympic year when 26-year old Michael Phelps has shown signs of mortality, Lochte, 27, is poised to take his place as the new face of American swimming. He has beaten Phelps in five of their last nine head-to-head meetings, despite losing Saturday’s 200-meter individual medley final at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials.

Counting relays, he could win up to six gold medals at the London Games to go with the three previous Olympic gold and five world championships from last summer. He won’t reach Phelps’ eight gold from the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but he’s not trying to.

With Lochte, his face is different than Phelps’, in more ways than one.

“It’s not about winning,” said Erika Wright, his Orlando, Fla.-based business manager. “He’s so much more than that.”

Whether America is tired of watching Phelps munch Subway sandwiches or it prefers a good rivalry, Lochte’s national persona is moving next to Phelps as much out of water as in.

NBC’s website is calling him “arguably the face of America’s team.” He has done photo shoots with Men’s Health, Men’s Journal and Speedo. He became one of four men to grace the cover of Vogue. He has landed sponsorship deals with Gillette, Gatorade, AT&T, Mutual of Omaha and Nissan. He launched a fitness DVD. He has nearly 95,000 followers on Twitter.

If Phelps struck gold with swimming, Lochte struck gold with raw sex appeal. Men’s Health listed him as the No. 1 best summer body in America. One recently was accused of starting a Facebook page where she superimposed her pictures with Lochte’s and wrote that they’re engaged. And the e-mail he gets …

“They send outrageous pictures of themselves they shouldn’t be sending,” Wright said.

Those who know him, however, say he’s much more than a pretty face. He was raised in Rochester, N.Y., until his father, Steve, moved the family to Daytona Beach, Fla., where he could coach swimming. Ryan idolized his father, even when Dad booted him from practice for clowning around, like hiding at the other end of the pool.

He surfs. He skateboards. He got injured break dancing. He shares a townhouse in Gainesville, Fla., with his brother and backstroker Ben Hesen.

“This may sound trite, but he’s the real deal,” said John Hildenbiddle, Mutual of Omaha’s senior vice president of brand management. “He’s down to earth. He goes by the beat of his own drummer. All those beats are positive.”

Lochte never will win a news conference, but he never will go Bob Knight at one either. He’s softspoken and polite. He’s complimentary of Phelps, whom he considers more than just a relay teammate. He’s modest when he beats Phelps.

Last winter, he happened to mutter to a reporter, “It’s my time.” Coming from Lochte, that sounded as outrageous as a declaration of war on the Kingdom of Phelps.

“I feel like this is my time,” Lochte said. “I have put in, definitely, the work and it’s something that I believe so strong that I know I can make this happen.”

Let’s face it. It should be Lochte’s time. While Phelps took a year and a half to bask in a bed of gold, salami and a party here and there, Lochte kept grinding out his 70,000 meters a week. He dropped his junk food habit — he ate McDonald’s every day in Beijing at the 2008 Games — and lifted more weights.

Phelps has spent the past 2½ years trying to restore the gap. He has just more than three weeks to do it before the London Games.

The public can’t wait. It loves dynasties but it loves drama more, particularly on an Olympic stage. If Phelps plays Goliath in London, Lochte will play the perfect David, even down to the curly locks.

Here in Omaha, David’s slingshot already has hit home.

“The reason he’s being promoted more, the media wants to promote this one-on-one competition between he and Michael,” Hildenbiddle said. “Since he has beaten him a couple times, it feeds that fire. It plays right into the public wanting more and more.”

Will his footprint shrink if he’s back to playing lieutenant governor to another Phelps coronation at the Olympics? Wright doesn’t think so. All of the endorsement deals they signed came before he beat Phelps at worlds.

Stay tuned, folks. London will definitely be jeah.