LONDON (Reuters) - Ryan Lochte got himself back on track for a golden haul in London after launching the United States to Olympic gold in the men’s 4x200 meters freestyle relay Tuesday, a victory that saw his team mate Michael Phelps become the most decorated Olympian ever.
Lochte brushed off two disappointing days in the pool to plow through the opening leg in front and give his team a commanding lead, which they never relinquished.
With Phelps swimming the anchor leg, the Americans won by more than three seconds from France and China. It was the third Olympics in a row where Lochte and Phelps joined forces to win the event.
“I had a pretty rough couple of days, but today I woke up and I felt good,” Lochte said.
“I woke up this morning and I was myself - this happy-go-lucky guy. I think that’s what helped me today, and I can take that into tomorrow.”
A fast and versatile swimmer - famous for building his strength by dragging chains and tossing beer kegs - Lochte had brashly stated that this was his year to shine.
Lochte’s pre-Games confidence was not based on any fanciful whim or the American tendency for trash-talking. He had six Olympic medals, including three gold, before the Games even started, and had beaten the seemingly-invincible Aaron Peirsol to win the 200 backstroke final in Beijing.
But after starting the Games on a high by winning the 400 individual medley, the 27-year-old struggled in his next two events.
The U.S. were beaten by France in the 4x100 freestyle final on Sunday after Lochte was overhauled by Yannick Agnel in the final few strokes when victory had seemed assured.
Then on Monday, Lochte finished out of the medals in the 200 final, an event he won at last year’s world championships, also won by Agnel.
“The past two days I wasn’t myself. After that relay my confidence went down,” he said.
“The others kept talking to me: ‘you know what, you are better than that, just forget about it and move on’.”
Phelps may have more medals but Lochte is quickly emerging as the face of the American men’s team, charming fans with his boyish looks and laid-back approach to life.
At the U.S. Trials, he dragged himself huffing and puffing out of the pool after swimming three lung-bursting races in an hour but still stopped to sign autographs.
Lochte still has two more races to go in London, but both are brutally tough.
He is the favorite to defend his 200 backstroke title although he will have to beat South Africa’s Chad le Clos, who upset Phelps in the 200 butterfly final, an hour before the relay.
Then Lochte faces Phelps himself in the 200 medley final, which promises to be one of the races of the Games.
“Anything’s possible,” Lochte said. “I’d have to swim a lot harder.”
Reporting by Clara Ferreira-Marques; editing by Julian Linden