EL MONTE, CALIF. -- Ryan Lochte doesn't want to get in the water. It isn't fatigue. Or laziness. He just would prefer not to feel like he's being stabbed with 1,000 icicles. He was watching a few minutes earlier when other Olympic hopefuls dove into the 67-degree water of the community pool. He heard the screams. He saw the shakes. And he'd rather just go back inside than pose for some promotional pictures.
But he has no choice. This is how superstar Olympians get paid. For the past two years, Lochte has beaten Michael Phelps in every meet that's mattered, and in doing so, he has at least temporarily taken over the title of the world's greatest swimmer. The label has brought with it added fame and fortune but at the same time increased pressure and lofty expectations. And there is no escape.
This summer, the 27-year-old with the cover-boy looks and infectious personality will be one of the "it" athletes of the London Games. Perhaps you've already seen him on "Today," on the cover of Vogue, in Victory Lane at the Daytona 500 or on the Men's Health website, which ranked Lochte's body as the summer's hottest. (Sorry, Ryan Reynolds.) Or maybe you recognize the baby blues that now peddle everything from razors to polo shirts to sports drinks.
On this day there's another sponsor to appease, another photographer, makeup artist and fashion designer to work with. A swimwear company Lochte represents is paying him for his misery, flying him here first-class and putting him up in a cushy hotel so he can model its gear as painlessly as possible. But there's one detail it forgot: an outdoor pool with a heater.
As Lochte walks to the edge of the deck and drags his toes across the water's surface, his unofficial temperature analysis is refreshingly honest: "This is going to suck."
My thoughts are similar. But I'm not thinking about the water. I'm wondering what life is like for swimming's class clown now that there's a giant target on his chest. As my mind wanders, Lochte stares at the calm sheet of blue in front of him. He jumps in. The icy water cuts into his skin, and he, too, screams in disapproval. Then, in one jaw-dropping move, he broad jumps out of the water, catapults his body over the lane line and lands feet first in the next lane over.
Lochte has always made it look that easy. While everyone else walks onto a pool deck looking like he is headed for a root canal, Lochte smiles, cracks a joke, climbs atop the block and sets a world record. Then he goes back to looking like he doesn't care. He's built his career as an unflappable talent who resists the urge to conform to the mold of what an Olympic swimming champion should say, wear and do. In his sparkling green high-tops and black "weirdo" T-shirt, he's done things his way. And he's won.
Now, as the London Olympics draw closer, every day is a fight between the man he is and the man everyone else wants him to be. The undercard is a bout between his desire to be the best ever in the water and 100 percent authentic out of it. Unlike his days as a child, when his boredom led to coaches kicking Lochte out of practice, the stakes are now infinitely higher. There are family, friends, Fortune 500 companies and an entire country counting on him -- not to mention the goals he has set for himself.
"As hard as I try, I can't get away from it," Lochte says of the emerging expectations. "That's the biggest thing I have to overcome."
So what happens when you beat Goliath? What happens when the expectations, attention and pressure multiply? Can you still relax? Can you still smile, laugh, joke around and win?
To find the answers, you visit Lochte in three states. You watch him when he's working, when he's playing. You talk to his friends, family, coaches and opponents. More questions emerge. Why is he afraid of being a bad father? Why can't he meet Mrs. Right? Why do he and his friends shoot fireworks at each other? Are he and Phelps actually friends? After you ask, you listen. And in the end, you learn a few things. Twelve things, to be exact. Twelve stories that just might share a bit of insight into the man who is hell-bent on stealing the show in the pool this summer.
I can guarantee you in the past two years nobody in the sport has trained harder than that kid. He just likes pain.
It's the middle of spring, and on a thick and steamy Florida afternoon in Gainsville, Lochte can barely stand, speak or breathe. A puddle of sweat follows his shadow everywhere it stops.
He has spent the past 90 minutes pushing his body to its absolute limit. But he's not done. Before he can chug a bottle of Mountain Dew and inhale trainer Matt DeLancey's marinating chicken, Lochte needs to drag a 450-pound chain 60 feet. He's already done this five times, the weight of the chain literally digging into the road and leaving five indentations behind.
"I'm not the most talented swimmer," Lochte adds. "So I try to outwork everyone else."
It's Sunday. A day of rest. The others who train with Lochte at the University of Florida are at home relaxing before another 30-hour week in the pool. But like nearly every other Sunday for the past three years, Lochte is under the intensity-fueled watch of DeLancey, a former Strongman competitor. With DeLancey barking encouragement, Lochte flips tires, pulls chains, lifts metal logs and throws kegs with the hope that this summer, it will all make it easier to shove water out of his way.
"People are always looking for the magic bullet," DeLancey says. "They want to find the fairy dust that will make them a world champion. But there is no fairy dust. The magic bullet is busting your ass. And nobody is willing to do that like this kid."
This is the work that backs up all that nonsense. How does somebody so laid-back and carefree become the world's top swimmer? By apparently pushing his body to a point where others refuse to go.
"What he does is insane," says 2008 Olympian and good friend Cullen Jones. "I can guarantee you in the past two years nobody in the sport has trained harder than that kid. He just likes pain. Whether it's in the water or lifting, he wants to be beaten to within an inch of his life, recover and then do it again."
On this day, one last tug of the chain awaits. Lochte slaps his hands together and stomps toward the chain. He yells, "London is my bitch!" and then wraps his finger around a set of links, digs the balls of his feet into the blacktop and begins to pull.
10, 20, 30, 40 feet.
"DIG, DIG, DIG," DeLancey yells.
Lochte's body shakes. His veins climb to the surface of his skin. His cheeks turn tomato red. The cone that was set as his 60-foot goal passes by.
"COME ON, COME ON," DeLancey snarls.
Lochte stops. He drops the chain. His legs, unable to support his body, are useless. He nearly collapses to the ground, his hands breaking the fall. It's over.
"Put a fork in him," DeLancey says with a smile. "He's done."
Swimming doesn't define who I am. It's just something that I do.
There are aspects of coaching Lochte that can't be fun. Yes, he's fiercely competitive and driven, and will work as hard as anyone. But his thrill-seeking addiction will put his body -- and thus his swimming career -- at unnecessary risk.
In the past six years, Lochte has torn his knee, broken his foot, broken his collarbone and pulled his groin doing everything from crashing his scooter to skateboarding to falling out of a tree. When one of his coaches suggested he stop skateboarding until after London, he took his younger brother Devon to the mall and bought three new skateboards.
"He was like, 'I need to go break a body part or something. I need to get injured,'" Devon says. "And I'm like, 'What?'
"When Ryan says that, he doesn't mean actually get injured. It usually means he's bored. It means he needs to do something that he really enjoys that isn't for somebody else. Something risky. You just can't keep someone like that locked up like jail."
Boredom as a child meant antics that would get him kicked out of practice. At first it was his mom, Ileana, who coached him and would send him to the showers. Later in life, it was his dad, Steve. Both still worry about him.
"You want to put him in a bubble and make him stay in that bubble," Ileana said. "But you can't. You have to let him do his thing. Swimming would become one of those jobs he hated if they took everything away."
This is how Lochte refuses to let go of his identity -- and sanity. No matter how hard he trains, no matter how much he wants to be one of the greatest swimmers of all time, to compete at his best he periodically has to find a way to escape. And if something happens and his career is ruined, so be it.
"Swimming doesn't define who I am," Lochte says. "It's just something that I do. Yeah, I'm an Olympic athlete, but I love skateboarding. I love playing basketball, surfing, doing something that I could probably get myself hurt. That is me. That is who I am. And I won't let swimming take that away and take over my life."
For now, it's Lochte's coach, Gregg Troy, who tries to manage a personality wired to star in a Red Bull commercial. And there's one place where he's firmly drawn the line.
"I've said no to skydiving," Troy says. "That's the big one. And he's like, 'Are you sure? Come on. It won't hurt.' I told him that's probably the one injury that could be a big one. He needs to put that aside until we're done with London."
Will Lochte listen?
"It's better not to bring it up at all," says Kyle Deery, his boyhood best friend. "I won't even say the word skydiving. The moment you say he shouldn't do something, he's going to take that as a challenge. And then he's going to do it.
"I won't even talk about cars anymore. Maybe I should just say, "'Hey, have you seen that awesome new Nissan?'"
I'm afraid of being a bad father. That would be terrifying if I wasn't able to support my kids and give them everything they want.
Lochte doesn't like snakes or spiders. Sharks aren't a favorite, either. But ask about his greatest fear in life, and his answer might surprise you.
"I'm afraid of being a bad father," Lochte says. "That would be terrifying if I wasn't able to support my kids and give them everything they want."
He doesn't have a serious girlfriend, not to mention any children. So what's with the fatherhood fears? Lochte's parents divorced last year. It hasn't been easy. Does that have something to do with it? Not at all, he says.
"My family was always there to love and support me," Lochte says. "They filled my life with so much love. I just see so many kids whose parents aren't there. I want to be there for those first steps, those first words. And yet I have this profession where maybe I won't be able to be there. I just have this fear of not being there to be a part of my child's life. And I don't want to miss anything."
When told of his son's thoughts, Lochte's mother isn't surprised.
"He doesn't want to disappoint anybody," she says. "I think he sees everything his dad did for him, everything some of his friends' dads did, and he doesn't want to be anything less. But if he puts as much time into being a father as he does in the pool, he will be just as good. He'll be a gold-medal dad."
Everyone is demanding so much out of me. ... I don't want to let anyone down.
Like most athletes, Lochte usually shrugs off talk of pressure and expectations with a clichéd "No one's expectations are greater than my own." But ask about his greatest fear in swimming, and Lochte's answer comes back to the theme of disappointment. Only this time, he's talking about London.
"Everyone is demanding so much out of me," he says. "I know I'm swimming for myself and no one else, but at the same time I don't want to let anyone down. And this is way bigger than it's ever been before."
The attention and added pressure are inescapable. Even when Lochte tries to slip into a Gainesville, Fla., bar and down a few drinks to escape, there are reminders.
"I'll be out in a bar, and somebody will come out and be like, 'Yo, Ryan, you ready for London, man? It's your time,'" he says. "I just think to myself, 'Dude, don't remind me again. Why do you think I'm out here at the bar, having a few beers, trying to get away from all that for a little bit?'
"It's exhausting. It never stops."
Those hours I'm by myself, I don't talk. I don't have to listen. I just swim. It's just me and the water.
On certain days, Lochte's brother Devon will come home from his classes at Florida, walk into the house and find Lochte sitting on the back patio with his Doberman, Carter, by his side. No one else will be around.
"He just sits there," Devon says. "I don't go out there. I know what he's doing. He's trying to unwind. He's trying to clear his mind. In those moments, I just let him be."
But even moments like this or a quick spin around the golf course aren't a true escape. At some point, Lochte's phone will buzz. Someone will need something. That's why as the pressure builds and London draws closer, the only place he can truly get away is the water.
"I look forward to that," Lochte says. "Those hours I'm by myself, I don't talk. I don't have to listen. I just swim. It's just me and the water. That's where I find my peace."
When they get behind the blocks, they're not friends. That's fair to say.
At every major swimming meet since 2008, one thing is certain. At the end of the day, when bodies are sore and minds are tired, Lochte, Phelps, Jones and a rotating fourth can be found in a hotel room buried in an intense game of spades. There, they abide by an unwritten, unspoken but completely understood rule: No talking about swimming. No times. No techniques. No strategies. Nothing.
"It's like 'Fight Club,'" Jones says. "You just don't do it."
Perhaps this is the reason Lochte and Phelps have been able to remain cordial throughout their colliding careers. They compartmentalize their relationship, telling themselves that the man sitting next to them at the card table is someone altogether different from the one standing next to them on the blocks.
In 2008 in Beijing, Lochte came within seconds of beating Phelps in the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys and ending the feel-good story of the Games. At last year's world championships in Shanghai, Lochte won four golds, beat Phelps twice and became the first swimmer to set a world record since high-tech suits were banned in 2010. He was named swimmer of the year, and Phelps was left feeling "super frustrated" by his new role as a bridesmaid.
"Of course there is animosity," Jones says. "They're hypercompetitive athletes. But they've always been able to set that aside away from the pool."
Although neither swimmer is advertising which events he will swim at the Olympic trials in Omaha later this month, a Lochte-Phelps showdown -- with both swimmers at their undeniable best -- is inevitable.
And when they're on the deck preparing to race, there won't be much small talk. Although Lochte says he has a newfound understanding for the pressure Phelps has dealt with over the years, Jones, Lochte's roommate on the road since 2006, compares Lochte and Phelps to the love/hate relationship between characters Cole Trickle and Rowdy Burns in "Days of Thunder." In competition, the two despise each other. They will do anything to win. But away from the big race, there's respect, understanding and friendship. Right?
"Yes," Jones says. "Well, essentially, yes. There's a switch there. It's really a switch. When they get behind the blocks, they're not friends. That's fair to say. But when we're around each other away from the water, absolutely. That's when it's all about Team USA.
"The day that we stop playing cards, that's when I'll start to worry about them."
We're both kind of pyromaniacs.
In their 15 years as best friends, Lochte and Kyle Deery have gotten themselves into plenty of mischief. After all, they met after getting kicked out of swimming practice and turning the shower-room floor into a soap-covered slip-and-slide. But ask Deery about the craziest thing he and his partner-in-crime have done, and he struggles to name a singular incident. Instead, he offers a theme: fireworks.
"We're both kind of pyromaniacs," Deery admits.
Over the years, Deery says he and Lochte have had countless bottle rocket fights that have escalated into mortar shell wars. Basically, the two chuck bombs at each other to see whether they can get out of the way fast enough.
"And that may or may not have happened within the last year," Deery says, chuckling.
In fact, it was just last January, Devon says, when Lochte tossed a mortar shell into the 21-year-old's bedroom, thinking it would pass through the room and go out the open window on the other side. But Lochte's aim was off. The mortar shell hit the wall and fell on the floor, fully lit. Devon, Ryan and Deery jumped out of the room and slammed the door shut behind them.
"When we opened the door, you couldn't even see the other side of the room," Devon says. "My curtain caught fire. There were black spots all over the ceiling. It kinda sucked because it was my room, but it was one of the funniest things I've ever seen."
He doesn't know the difference between a good girl and a bad girl.
As much as Madison Avenue loves Lochte for his ability to touch the wall before anyone else, his easy-on-the-eyes appearance is just as appealing. You would think a world-class swimmer with a chiseled frame and model-like looks would have no trouble finding a stable female companion. And you'd be wrong. Ask Lochte about the status of his love life, and he uses the phrase "in shambles."
"Is there a decent girl out there who doesn't lie?" he asks. "They all lie. They're all evil. I just want to meet someone who is real, who is honest. Who doesn't just want me for money or fame, who wants to love me as a person."
Mention to Lochte that his comments likely will lead a parade of women to camp outside his Gainesville home, and he smiles.
"I know," he says. "And they all say the same thing. 'I don't lie. I don't play games. I'm a good person. You can trust me.' I've heard that all before."
Lochte's friends and family suggest that part of the problem is his inability to pick the right girl.
"I'm always like, 'No, no, no, no, no,'" Jones says.
"He doesn't know the difference between a good girl and a bad girl," Devon adds. "I'll tell him, 'Ry, this is not the kind of girl that we would bring home to Mom.' And he'll just tell me that I don't trust people, that I need to learn to give more people a chance. But he gives too many chances. He's just always trying to find the good in everyone."
Sick and nasty ... in either white or orange and black.
The day before Lochte dives into the frigid pool and smiles to push swimwear, he's sitting in the corner of a dressing room keeping to himself. With a swirl of chaos around him, Lochte is obliviously lost in his own world, playing "Temple Run" on his iPhone. I interrupt and ask him to tell me about his cars.
And like a proud papa, he turns off the game and starts scrolling through pictures on his phone. There's a black-on-black Audi R8, a car he says he's had up to 175 mph on the interstate.
"I saw a dot up ahead, so I slammed on the brakes," he says. "It could have gotten ugly."
And there's a white Range Rover, Lochte's version of a practical family car. The family is about to grow, as Lochte eyes a new Lamborghini that he says will go from 0-60 in 1.8 seconds.
"Sick and nasty," Lochte says. "In either white or orange and black."
If all goes well in London, the Lamborghini will be his reward for a job well done.
"That's my dream car," he says. "So I guess I'd better do good."
To see someone like this who is a celebrity is really kind of odd. You almost don't want to tell him.
After posing, smiling, swallowing a piece of gum and doing everything he's asked at the photo shoot, Lochte climbs out of the pool and spots a 4-month-old boxer on the deck. He immediately transforms into a little boy. He turns his head to the left and kisses the dog's right ear. He turns his head to the right and kisses the dog's left ear. The dog responds by licking Lochte all over his face. Nearly everyone on the set coos at Lochte's love for the little puppy.
"Let's just hope the dog doesn't bite his face," one assistant jokes.
The story is of no surprise to those who know Lochte best. He may love fireworks and jumping out of planes, but he's also extremely sensitive. One night he suggested to Devon that the two of them watch the 2004 love story "The Notebook." So they did.
"He cried," Devon says. "He actually cried. I try not to tell people, but he's a softy. He's sort of a sissy."
Devon says there are days when he'll pop into the house and find his brother all cuddled up on the floor with Carter, the two of them lying face-to-face as Ryan whispers to his pooch.
"I'll walk in and be like, 'Ry, what are you doing?'" Devon says. "And he'll be like, 'Umm, uh, well, just playing with Carter.' That's probably the only Doberman in the world that's a lapdog. And Ryan is the reason."
It is this corner of Lochte's personality that struggles to say no to anyone, be it a little girl asking for an autograph or a frat boy seeking a free drink in a bar. It's the side of him that was crushed when his Gainesville home was broken into and many of his belongings were stolen a few years ago.
"He's always got these rose-colored glasses on," Deery says. "Everything is true and genuine. Nothing is superficial. To see someone like this who is a celebrity is really kind of odd. You almost don't want to tell him."
I just don't like anybody saying anything about my family. That's my life.
For as laid-back and unflappable as Lochte seems to be, there is one thing that will set him off. Talk bad about his family -- anyone in his family -- and his smile instantly evaporates.
Lochte tells the story of a night in Gainesville when one bar patron was giving Devon a hard time. When Lochte approached and asked the man to stop, he was greeted with an expletive-laced tirade. So Lochte says he clocked him across the face.
"I just don't like anybody saying anything about my family," he says. "That's my life."
In addition to his mother, father and Devon, Lochte has two older sisters and a younger brother. Ryan and Devon, who live together in Gainesville, are particularly close. Ryan bought his little brother his first bottle of cologne, Cool Water. And Devon is already dreading the day his big brother leaves the college town he's called home for a decade, which likely will happen at some point after London.
For now, they try to have as much fun as possible, especially when girls are around. Devon tells the story of one late night when he and his girlfriend were hanging out in his bedroom when Ryan came home. He warned her to be ready for anything.
"Sure enough, he walks through the door, runs upstairs, jumps on the bed and starts picking her nose, playing with her ears, just messing with her. Being a little punk. It was funny. And she goes, 'So this is your brother?'
"Stuff like that happens all the time."
It's no surprise that the entire Lochte family will be making the trip to London this summer. So too will best friend Deery, who told Lochte as a 12-year-old that if he ever made the Olympics, he would be there cheering him on.
"Making that promise as a kid has taken me to three different continents," says Deery, who went to Athens and Beijing. "It's pretty special. I wouldn't miss it for anything."
It's my time. I want to do something that no one else has ever done.
It's another Sunday afternoon of hell, and Lochte, wearing a pair of 7-ounce MMA boxing gloves, is hammering away at the targets DeLancey holds in front of his face. The rhythmic beat of the gloves connecting with the pads echoes through the neighborhood.
Jab, jab, hook.
Jab, jab, hook.
Jab, jab, hook.
A soccer mom crawls by in a minivan and stares. The most intense thing that used to happen on this street was the weekly visit by the garbage collector. But ever since DeLancey moved in and his prized pupil started visiting, that's changed.
During a brief break for water, Lochte tells his trainer that things aren't going so well under the gloves. He's hitting so hard that he's peeled the skin off all four of his knuckles on his right hand."You might be getting some blood on your gloves," Lochte says.
"Like I care," DeLancey answers. "You know I love it. Bring it. A little blood never hurt anyone."
On and on the boxing goes. Lochte's arms pump up and down like a locomotive engine. When it's finally over, Lochte takes off the gloves and reveals the damage. Quarter-sized holes cover the knuckles on all four fingers. Streams of blood drip down his hand. Four days later at a Grand Prix event in Indianapolis, his fingers still look raw.
"Hurts," Lochte says. "But what are you going to do?"
It's no surprise then when Lochte struggles to swim well in Indianapolis. It isn't just the fingers. His entire body is broken down. He wins just two medals -- both bronze -- and fails to qualify for the A finals in the 100 free and 100 fly. Afterward, he tells a group of reporters he isn't worried. He knows where he's at in his training. It's a learning moment. But a few minutes later, when the cameras are off, ask Lochte if that's the truth, if he's really OK with losing and seeing Phelps stand atop the podium while he heads to the cool-down pool.
"No," Lochte says. "Not at all. I hate it. I honestly hate it. If you don't hate losing, then you have to find another sport. It's no fun."
Boiled down to its simplest form, swimming is a test of pain. How much hurt are you willing to endure to win a gold medal? That's the question that Lochte, Phelps and everyone else in the water will answer in London this summer. That's the verdict we all are waiting for. Who has put in the time and work? And who is willing to hurt? Those close to Lochte are confident in the answer.
"What Phelps did was amazing," Devon says. "But I don't care if he won eight gold medals. If he's beating Ryan by an arm's length, turn your head. Ryan is going to win. There's just something in his brain that snaps and says, 'F--- it,' I'm winning.' It isn't normal."
For the past few months, Lochte has told anyone who will listen that he believes the time is his. He has all the respect in the world for Phelps. But he doesn't plan on being the co-star in the final chapter of the Michael Phelps story. Instead, he believes this is his show. He hasn't spent four years of Sundays with DeLancey, four years of wrestling with what he should and shouldn't give up, only to lose in the end.
Of course, the greatest swimmer who ever lived will have something to say about that. He already has, in a way, as word of Lochte's confidence trickled back to Camp Phelps.
"I've always been a person who lets my swimming do the talking," Phelps said last month when asked of Lochte's confidence. "I've always been able to jump in the water, and whoever is the most prepared is going to win that race."
Ryan Lochte believes that he is that man, and this story will have a much different ending from the one the world watched in Beijing.
Whether he's right remains to be seen.
"I've been working since 2008. I've put four years into this," he says. "It's my time. I want to do something that no one else has ever done."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Wayne on Twitter @espnWD.