By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
With football season a couple of months away, I stopped by my favorite newsstand last night to check out the latest football rankings and start thinking about who I might select next month in my brother’s fantasy football draft.
As I reached for a magazine, I couldn’t help but notice out of the corner of my eye a very familiar face smiling back from the covers of Men’s Health and Men’s Journal – a face I’d seen and spoken with numerous times at the Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha recently.
As I leafed through both magazines, along with stories about his ab workouts and how he will be the star of the upcoming London Olympics, were advertisements for shaving cream and a car that also had his blue-eyed persona firmly plastered on the page.
This face doesn’t belong to Michael Phelps, almost as famous for his advertisements for sandwiches as his 14 gold medals at the last two Olympics.
No, this grinning mug belonged to someone who, four years ago at Olympic Trials, coyly, almost begrudgingly, spoke to the media before and after his events but is now on the cusp of becoming swimming’s next media mogul.
Once comfortable being the laid-back surfer-dude – curly, unruly hair and all – to Phelps’ media darling, the finely-coifed Lochte on these magazine covers and who showed he is no longer content playing second-fiddle to his friend and rival last year at World Championships and again at Olympic Trials earlier this month, is new and improved.
At least his acceptance of his role and importance to the world of swimming is new and improved.
He’s always been a bit of a showman – not quite on the Gary Hall Jr. scale but close – with his golden high-top sneakers at 2008 Trials and red, white and blue ones with wings this year, but he always seemed content to let his results in the water speak louder than in the pages of magazines or on camera.
Seeing Lochte – who is a terrific ambassador for swimming and athletics in general – embrace his role is refreshing and another boost of publicity and visibility for the sport, particularly important with Phelps, Natalie Coughlin and Dara Torres at the end or nearing the end of their swimming careers.
During Trials, I brought up the subject with former USA Swimming President Dale Neuberger, and he agreed, saying he’d seen the potential years ago for Lochte to become an equal partner with Phelps and Coughlin (and others) as the “face” of USA Swimming, but he’d always seemed reluctant.
That’s no longer the case. Maybe it’s maturity or just becoming more comfortable with who he is and being in the spotlight, but it’s obvious Lochte realizes now is his time to capitalize on all that he has going for him in and out of the pool.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s a good-looking kid, either, as the camera loves him even if he’s still warming up to it. Along with his current covers, he also adorned the June cover of Vogue – only the fourth man to ever accomplish this feat – and has been featured in several articles promoting his own potential run toward multiple gold medals this summer in London.
During this year’s Trials, he made himself readily available to the media – appearing eager to participate in press conferences, candidly discussing his life and swimming, and even stayed longer than most in the USA Swimming Mix Zone right after his races to answer questions and make jokes with members of the media.
Bottom line – this is not the same Ryan Lochte of four years ago – or even two years ago.
Whether or not it was his decision to pursue these media opportunities, Lochte has surrounded himself with a great team that has done a terrific job getting him to break out of his shell and see beyond his success in the pool and what he can do for himself and the sport of swimming.
With a highly anticipated battle with Phelps brewing in several events at the upcoming Olympics, the spotlight will continue to shine brightly on the young man from Florida – and it’s evident that he’s more than ready.
It’s his turn to see where and how far his burgeoning celebrity can take swimming – and it looks like his reach could be limitless. No doubt he’s always had the tools in the water. It’s refreshing to see him shining as brightly outside of the pool…even if it might be a few years past due.