Swimming in Shame: Is Keller, Lochte or Phelps Most to Blame?

Swimming in Shame: Is Keller, Lochte or Phelps Most to Blame?

There may be something in the chlorine that affects the brains and judgments of world-class male swimmers from the United States.

We’ve learned this week that Klete Keller stormed the U.S. Capitol building along with QAnon Shaman (reindeer/water buffalo head) and thousands of others.

Trying to be coy (not really), he wore his U.S. Olympic Swimming jack so no one would be able to point him out when the hundreds of cell phone cameras and building cameras went looking for whom to arrest.

Then there was — we’ll never forget — Ryan Lochte at the 2016 Summer Olympics getting all twisted up an international story of American shamefulness.

After having a few pops with his fellow Olympic swimmers, Lochte stopped by a gas station to relieve himself and somehow got in an argument with a gas station attendant.

It wasn’t a good look especially after Lochte didn’t really tell the truth about what happened until much later after the story made American swimmers, and America in general, look like arrogant jerks.

Then there was that time soon after Michael Phelps won eight Olympic Gold Medals he went to some party, took a big bong hit, and somebody took his picture that went viral and his image got tarnished.

It was a lot for us to process: The best swimmer of all-time likes to smoke weed.

What’s up with these three guys? We all make mistakes, of course. But it seems a little bit disproportionate the magnitude of the scandals that these three U.S. Olympic male swimmers got entangled with.

None of this is good. None of us should feel proud or take joy in the misfortunes of others, the staining of the reputations of three incredibly dedicated athletes who sacrificed huge chunks of their childhoods in pools swimming fast and furiously while the rest of us lived like the rest of normal society lives.

It could just be a coincidence that three major scandals involved three different star American swimmers.

But I do wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that to be as great as these guys were at swimming they missed some things along the way in how to grow up, interact with people, deal with problems, and just get through day to day living outside of the pool.

They weren’t expected to be great kids outside of the pool if they didn’t want to while growing up because they were so good coaches and parents kept telling them to get back in the pool, that they were destined to be Olympians.

So they swam. Up at 4 and 5 am with their heads submerged underwater, all three of them went back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

Then practice ended. Only to start up again later that afternoon. Same drill: Head underwater, back and forth, back and forth.

Tomorrow do it all over again. And the next day.

For a week, and then months, and then years, Klete, Ryan, and Michael swam. You knew where they were, at the pool, always.

It paid off. All three of them hauled in numerous Olympic medals. They stood on the podiums as the Star Spangled Banner played honoring them. Five minutes of fame. Fifteen or 20 years in the pool. Five hundred thousand laps (probably more).

Then all that ended.

We’ve learned this week that Klete’s had some difficulties in life since retiring from swimming. That’s sad. But he’s not the only one who’s had a hard time adjusting to life after high school or college or being a child sports prodigy.

How he got from Olympic champion to storming the Capitol building seems like a long and winding story, tragic actually. What was he thinking? Was he out on a lark, in between jobs, searching for meaning in his life?

Did he really think it made sense to walk into a police-protected government office building with a bunch of guys yelling “hang Mike Pence”?

Seems far-fetched he would have yelled that. My hope is he was just caught up in the moment and had no intent to harm anyone.

My hope is whatever pain he’s been going through, or whatever frustrations he’s had in life after swimming, are now behind him. My hope is this incident last week wakes him up and he finds what he’s meant to do in this world — because clearly what he did last week wasn’t that.

As for Ryan, I’ve always thought he got excessively crucified for the gas station imbroglio in Rio De Janeiro. People wanted him to fall off his pedestal, to be embarrassed in part because they were jealous of his amazing swimming talent and endorsement deals and popularity.

They were happy when he lost all that. His life, spent in the water to be great at swimming that made him famous and then potentially making a living off that fame with endorsement deals, got crushed because of one stupid night doing something immature but not really, if we’re being honest, that heinous.

The public abused him and he’s been paying for it. I hope he’s doing well and I’d like to believe he’s going to do great things with this life because of that traumatic experience.

Then there’s Michael. He smoked pot one night and someone snapped a photo and we all saw it. Had that been me, I’d have been embarrassed.

All those hours in the water listening to coaches urge you to practice harder because he was a phenom with the potential to be the greatest swimmer who has ever lived.

You listened, Michael. You sacrificed. And you inspired the world with the way you won so much, the beauty of your butterfly, the most aesthetically pleasing to the eye that anyone’s ever swam that stroke and ever will.

Then you wake up to the world vilifying you, shaming you. Bad boy, Michael. You punk. You smoked dope.

Michael’s had some tough emotional times since then and spoken publicly about them. He was in some dark places and pulled himself out of them.

I admire that. We should all admire that.

Looking ahead, what do these three sad stories tell us about the sport of swimming and life after superstardom?

Hard to say for sure, but it could be that these three guys felt so much pressure to be great swimmers, and were treated with such excessive adulation, and were given so much natural talent, that they had difficulty keeping their egos under control, recognizing other kids for their strengths, caring about other people who weren’t as gifted as them.

Maybe swimming stunted them emotionally. It prepared them to be great swimmers but not great people. It’s a lonely sport — more than most — and they may have felt more lonely than those of us who weren’t swimming all the time.

One thing we do know: All that fame, all those medals, all that glory did not result in them always being happy or able to figure out what to do when times were tough outside of the water.

Like the rest of us, these guys have had problems. My hope is that the swimming community pays as much attention to making swimmers great human beings as they do making them great swimmers.

And that the rest of us ease up on these guys for their transgressions. We’ve all done the same. And like the three of them, we all need compassion and encouragement.

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Sammy Sportface
Sammy Sportface
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