The Art of Mojo

by Casey Barrett

Ryan Lochte’s London campaign… A study in confidence. 

On Sunday they called him King Ryan. He was on the cover of every newspaper in the world, but the New York Post said it loudest as usual. On one side of the tabloid, there was a defeated Phelps; the headline beneath him read “Phlop!” And on the other side, there was King Ryan, breaststroking out at you, the crown passed from the front to the back page.

Twenty-four hours later, the Post was calling him a choker, and worse, a guy who refused to stand up and take responsibility after that ill-fated relay. That’s how it goes with the tabloids… You can’t believe the hyperbole, whether they’re anointing you or tearing you down the next day.

The harsh swing from aqua god to relay goat clearly took its toll on Lochte. This is a champion who thrives on swagger, who’s always been having too much fun to be intimidated. But now the My Time script had changed and doubt descended.

It carried over into the next day, as Lochte swam a good but not great 200 free, an effort that left him just out of the medals in 4th. Even with an all-time performance, he wasn’t going to beat Yannick Agnel that night, but with just a bit more of that signature mojo, you had a sense he should have won a hard-charging silver.

He claimed he got it back the next day. After he and his relay mates delivered a dominated gold in the 4 x 200 free, Lochte told NBC’s Andrea Kremer that he’d woken up that morning feeling like himself again, feeling like the “jokester Ryan Lochte.” It sounded legit, and the next day he threw down a couple of strong semifinals in the 200 back and 200 IM.

His confidence appeared to be restored. Rowdy Gaines told us that the next night would define Lochte’s legacy.

Let’s hope not. He is much better than he showed tonight. This is a champion who does not get passed with 25 meters to go in his best event. He’s not a guy who loses an IM on the backstroke leg either. Yet that’s what we watched go down.

It’s a testament to Lochte’s awesome talent and ambitions that we watched these races with a sense of tragic disbelief. The guy was completing the second hardest Olympic program ever attempted. He won a bronze and a silver in his 12th and 13th swims of his Olympic campaign. These two medals brought him into a three way tie with Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi as America’s second most decorated male Olympic swimmers. Yes, Phelps has double the medals than the next guy, but Lochte has put himself in all-time company.

But he lost two races back to back that he was in shape to win. No disrespect to Tyler Clary, he swam an incredible fearless race and certainly put in the work to become a worthy Olympic champion. (Just ask him how much harder he worked than Phelps!) Yet, Lochte is the superior backstroker. He should not have lost that one.

When he marched out for the 200 IM 39 minutes later, you could see it in his face. Good ‘ol relaxed what-me-worry Ryan Lochte was not around. In his place was a shaken swimmer. The late money at the betting windows was pouring in on Phelps. This one was effectively over halfway through the backstroke leg. To beat Phelps, on any day, there can be no weakness.

What is mojo? The dictionary defines it as “magic charm.” The Urban Dictionary, which of course would be Lochte’s preferred reference point, defines it as “self-confidence, self-assuredness. As in basis for belief in ones self in a situation.” Meaning this is a word that has always personified Lochte.

It certainly did on Saturday, when he stood glowing and grinning with the stars and stripes grill atop the podium. But it seems France’s Yannick Agnel swiped it away the next day. This wasn’t just a hard-fought silver in a relay. This was losing a lead in the closing meters in a race that had massive meaning for both countries. Lochte felt that in his bones, you know he did. And it seems he couldn’t shake it.

Twitter, in all its brainless mob mentality, is already jumping on the Lochte-was-overrated bandwagon. He wasn’t. He is every bit as good as advertised, and he leaves these Games with five medals, two of them gold, tied with past icons with the second greatest medal haul in U.S. Olympic history. But we all know the story is going to be: what went wrong?

It has something to do with that precarious magic charm.