Ryan Lochte, fresh off a 10-month suspension from both the United States Olympic Committee and USA Swimming, signed autographs and took pictures for nearly two hours on Friday outside the Nassau County Aquatic Center.
In his first USA Swimming competition since the 2016 Rio Olympics, Lochte will race in the U.S. Open in the 100-meter backstroke event on Saturday and the 200-meter intermediate medley on Sunday. He is seeded eighth in the backstroke and first in the IM.
The 33-year-old was handed a lengthy suspension last September along with three other swimmers after events that occurred at a gas station in Rio de Janeiro.
Lochte, a 12-time Olympic medalist, was charged by Rio police for filing a false report after claiming he was robbed at gunpoint by men disguised as police. He later admitted that he embellished the story. On July 14, he was cleared of all charges.
“It’s been amazing,” Lochte said of the fan support. “A bunch of kids showed up, and just the love and support I see on a daily basis through social media and just on the streets, I’m definitely blessed. This is one of the reasons why I’m still swimming, is for those fans.”
Gunnar Bentz, one of the swimmers handed a four-month suspension for their involvements in the incident, will also compete in the U.S. Open, which began Wednesday and ends Sunday.
Lochte is expected to be the main draw, both for his prowess in the pool and the circumstances surrounding his return. He’s the favorite in the 200 IM, having won two silvers and a bronze in the event in Olympic competition.
He won the 200 IM in April at the U.S. Masters spring nationals, an event he was eligible to enter because it is not associated with USA Swimming.
He has a gold and a bronze medal in the 200 backstroke, double the distance of Saturday’s 100 in which he’s the second-oldest competitor in a field of 73 swimmers.
“I’m starting back at the bottom; I’m starting strictly from ground zero,” Lochte said. “I haven’t really been training much this year. I’ve been taking care of my family first. This meet is a starting point on where I need to go.”
Preliminaries each day begin at 9 a.m. with finals scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. Lochte said he plans on using this and future competitions as preparation for a run at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“The spark that’s ignited in me, I’ve never felt before,” Lochte said, attributing his drive to his son, Caiden, who was born in June. “I’ve never had this much passion for the sport of swimming, and I’m just excited to see what I can do.”