BARCELONA, Spain — Ryan Lochte has put his TV career on hold.
It’s time to go swimming again.
The American star will lead another powerhouse men’s team into the swimming portion of the world championships, which begins today at the Palau Sant Jordi. He hopes to compete in seven events and doesn’t have to worry about being overshadowed by longtime rival Michael Phelps.
Lochte never considered quitting, but he did try some new things, including his own reality show.
“After the Olympics, I wanted to take a break from the swimming pool,” Lochte said. “I wanted to do things that other Olympians just dreamed about. I had a lot of fun, doing a bunch of TV appearances. I had my own reality TV show. Everything I did was different.
“But,” he added, “the biggest goal was always the 2016 Olympics. I knew I had to get back in the water eventually.”
At the midway point of the FINA worlds championships, the American have only two medals – both in open water. Missy Franklin, who won four golds and a bronze at the Olympics, plans to increase her workload from seven to eight events at the world championships. Lochte will be nearly as busy, though he has changed up his London program.
Even though he won gold in the grueling 400-meter individual medley, he’s dropped that event for this meet. Instead, he’ll take on the 100 butterfly, where he’ll face South African star Chad le Clos – best known for handing Phelps a shocking loss in the 200 fly at London.
Lochte’s other individual events are the 200 IM, the 200 backstroke and the 200 freestyle. Plus, he hopes to be picked for all three relays.
But, given the lack of training time leading up to this meet, Lochte is realistic about his chances.
“Any other year, my expectations would definitely be medaling in every race,” he said. “I want to do that at this meet, but it’s been an off year. I really don’t know what’s going to happen. If I can just step on the blocks and race tough, I think I’ll be all right.”
He has no regrets about his post-Olympic schedule.
“I’m usually training every day, all the time,” Lochte said. “This year, I took a long break. I don’t know if it’s going to help me or not. But it was worth it. I had to do what I needed to do. My body basically needed to recharge.”
The most anticipated event of the opening night is the 400 free relay, where the Americans figure to face a stiff challenge from defending Olympic champion France as well as the Australians, who are led by James “The Missile” Magnussen.
The Aussies, long the top challenger to the U.S., hope to begin bouncing back from a dismal performance at the London Games. They took only one gold medal and 10 overall, leading to a major organizational shake-up.
“We come into this meet with some very good rankings on paper, but that is a paper assessment,” said Michael Scott, who three months ago was appointed director of high performance for the Australian swim federation. “The ship isn’t broken in Australia. But we need to refine it and we’ve started working on that. And the positive steps that I’ve seen have been significant.”
China seems on the verge of being a major swimming power after its performance in London, where its 10 medals included five golds. Towering Sun Yang captured two golds, a silver and a relay bronze, while 17-year-old Ye Shiwen romped to dominating victories in the women’s 200 and 400 IMs.
But Dutch team director Jacco Verhaeren said the Chinese are actually underachievers, given their nation’s enormous population and potential pool of athletes.
“I always think they can do a lot better, but luckily for us all they don’t,” he said. “They can challenge the whole world if they want to. But apparently they don’t want it enough, because otherwise they (would have) already. A country with 1.3 billion people should be better in every relay than all other countries. So it’s a choice.”
Phelps is expected to be cheering from the stands, returning to the city where he had a breakout performance at the 2003 worlds. There is plenty of speculation that he’s plotting a comeback in time for the 2016 Rio Olympics, though Phelps has denied — sort of — that he has any plans to return to the pool.
Many top swimmers took long breaks after the London Olympics, with some shutting down for the entire year. So don’t expect this meet to come anywhere close to the spectacle of the last post-Olympic worlds, which came at the height of the rubberized suit era. A staggering 43 world records were set at the 2009 meet in Rome.
After the rubber suits were banned, only two world records were set at the 2011 worlds in Shanghai. Last summer, however, the swimmers began taking aim at lofty marks that some though might last for a decade or longer, taking down nine world records in London. American Rebecca Soni set two of those marks in the 200 breaststroke, one of them in the semifinals.
Soni is taking this year off and won’t be in Barcelona.
So, who might set a record in this meet?
Verhaeren singled out now-retired Aaron Peirsol’s 100 backstroke mark from 2009 (51.94) as ripe for the taking. Matt Grevers of the U.S. won gold last year in London with a time of 52.16 but could be challenged by Japanese swimmers Ryosuke Irie, the Olympic bronze medalist, and Kosuke Hagino, a promising 18-year-old. Also keep an eye on Jeremy Stravius of France.
“I don’t know if they’re good enough,” Verhaeren said. “But they are really close.”
The men’s 100 back final will be held Tuesday — Day 3 of the pool competition.