Why the gold medal-winning swimmer is “the happiest I’ve ever been”

By Adam Carlson
July 15, 2020 11:53 AM
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Olympic gold medal swimmer Ryan Lochte has long been used to being chased in the pool by his competitors. But today it’s 3-year-old son Caiden — roaring like a dinosaur far scarier than Michael Phelps — who is in hot pursuit of his dad.

Popping out from around a corner in the family’s Gainesville, Florida, home, Caiden gets ready to pounce onto their living room couch until, with a growl and a giggle, he’s back in Lochte’s arms.

“It’s hard work being a dad and trying to compete at the highest level in sports,” Lochte, 35, tells PEOPLE. “But I’m the happiest I’ve ever been — by far.”

It’s been four years since the start of his unhappiest period. Arriving at the Rio Games in 2016, Lochte was an 11-time swimming medalist from three previous Olympics — the sport’s 32-year-old, silver-haired playboy.

Though he left Brazil with one more gold, Lochte also left in disgrace after his claim about being robbed at gunpoint unraveled as an exaggeration to cover up a confrontation with armed security guards over alleged vandalism. (A charge against him was ultimately dismissed; he's apologized for his behavior and tells PEOPLE it was “a wake-up call.”)

• For more on Ryan Lochte's last four years, his home life with a wife and two kids and his hopes for an Olympic comeback, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

Because of Rio, Lochte was suspended by USA Swimming for 10 months and he lost more than $1 million in sponsorships. Then he was suspended again in 2018 for violating a restriction on IV use. Later that year, he entered a month-long rehab program for alcohol after a run-in with police at his California hotel room.

It was one mistake — “one demon” — after another. “I’m the type of person that buries everything,” he admits. “I just needed a change.”

“If I’d kept going in the direction I was,” he says, “who knows where I’d be — in jail or dead.”

But as Lochte’s image withered, his home life bloomed: He married Kayla Lochte, a former Playboy model who’d cheered him on from the stands in Rio, in January 2018. They welcomed Caiden in 2017 and 1-year-old daughter Liv last summer. He wasn’t just an athlete anymore.

“Everything changed. I’m no longer responsible just for myself,” says Ryan, who also shares his story in a candid new documentary on NBC's Peacock streaming service. “We’d been through the hardest things and we overcame them and we built a beautiful family from it,” he says. “We were drowning, and now we’re not.”

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Ryan Lochte (in the pool with son Caiden) photographed at home with wife Kayla Lochte (left) and their daughter, Liv.
| Credit: Justin Keena
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Ryan Lochte competing in Iowa in March
| Credit: Maddie Meyer/Getty

Home life in their leafy Gainesville suburb, where they resettled in late 2017, is a dance of careful scheduling and (on those occasions when nap time actually results in a nap) some luck. Ryan is up each morning to train — luckily he’s found a quarantine-friendly facility where he spends more than four hours a day in the pool and with weights — then back home before lunch to spend a few hours with Kayla, Caiden, and Liv.

While he’s out, Kayla runs the house. Caiden is now old enough to head off to pre-K until his dad picks him up on his way back from practice.

“I can’t believe it’s all gone by so fast,” says Kayla.

Caiden, a big fan of dinosaurs and trains, is “fiesty, determined and stubborn” and takes after his mom, says Kayla. Ryan says Liv (nicknamed Sissy) is “more chill and relaxed, like me.”

Ryan goes back in the water for the afternoon, then home for dinner, baths, pajamas, and bed. At the end of the night, he and Kayla catch up on Netflix (13 Reasons Why) or Bravo (The Real Housewives — “he's always trying to fall asleep and I see one eye watching,” she teases).

Ryan LochteCR: @kaylatuckermanphoto
From left: Ryan Lochte with wife Kayla Lochte and son Caiden
| Credit: @kaylatuckermanphoto
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Center, from left: Kayla and Ryan Lochte at their 2018 wedding
| Credit: CHARD Photo

What Ryan won’t promise is that next summer will be his last Olympics. “I’m trying to prove to everyone that I can do this,” he says. “You could say this is my redemption.”

Says Kayla: “I want the world to see his greatness and his heart and his potential and his everything.”

Like so much else since Rio though, the Tokyo Games have not gone according to plan: In a world put on pause by social distancing from COVID-19, they were delayed a year until July 2021. Ryan still hopes to qualify for Team USA (with a merchandise line to prove it) and compete when he will be on the verge of his 37th birthday.

But “age is just a number,” he says. “My kids make me feel young.” And they keep him busy for whatever comes next.

“As soon as I leave that pool deck, I’m no longer a swimmer,” Ryan says. “I am a husband. I’m a dad. I’m everything else.”