The world was formally introduced to Ryan Lochte last summer, when the swimmer won two golds, two silvers, and one bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics in London. We vaguely remembered his blue eyes and shaggy hair from the 2008 games in Beijing, but neither he nor his collection of hip-hop-wannabe footwear had yet reached Jeah!-level popularity. Now the IQ-deficient Adonis was everywhere, posing on the blocks, peeing in the pool, and flashing a mouthful of bling. He was meant to be Michael Phelps’ successor, but instead he became a beefcake centerfold in a pink Speedo of his own design, his shirtless image plastered on the covers of Glamour and Vogue magazines.
Within hours of taking first in the 400-meter individual medley, Lochte (rap name “Reezy”) appeared on every imaginable media outlet expressing his longing to join the estimable tabloid-train-wreck-relationship club by becoming the new Bachelor. A YouTube video in which Lochte and teammate Matt Grevers “chillax” after practice while debating the etymological difference between shampoo and “cleansing rinse” went viral. Gawker dubbed him a “douchebag.” Lochte’s new reality show What Would Ryan Lochte Do?, which premiered last night on E!, looks so out of control—he plays drunk golf in one teaser—it’s bound to propel the dopey swimmer to even greater depths of fame.
And yet, I’m here to argue that it’s time we stop making fun of Lochte, at least long enough to focus on a career achievement that has thus far gone completely unnoticed in the Jewish community. Lochte, who isn’t Jewish but believes God has a “plain” for everyone, may not be a rabbinical scholar, but what he has done—and to a much larger degree than most swimmers in the history of the sport—is spread Talmudic wisdom to swim fans, Jewish and non-Jewish, all over the world. Let me explain.
The Talmud (Kiddushin 29a) specifies three skills that parents must teach their children: Torah, how to make a living, and how to swim. I have a fairly decent grasp of Torah but my kids are more interested in Pokéman than parsha, and I’m a writer so I have absolutely no idea how to earn a living. But I could definitely teach my kids how to swim.
Years ago when they were tiny and my motivation was more about water safety than Olympic stardom, I signed my kids up for lessons at the Lenny Krayzelburg Swim Academy at Los Angeles’ Westside Jewish Community Center, started in 2005 by the famed Russian-Jewish four-time Olympic gold medalist. My son Boaz was floating on his back by the time he was 6 months old; at age 3, his sister Ayla was doing cannonballs in the deep end. Granted, the Talmud wasn’t suggesting we push our kids to become Olympic champs, rather that we teach them how to save themselves from drowning. Nonetheless, with every newly acquired stroke, every soft splash as they practiced underwater kicks, I felt a swell of pride that I was doing something right as a Jewish parent.
But while it was fun seeing Krayzelburg padding around the place like a big gangly penguin during lessons—not in a Speedo but in his go-to uniform of baggy jeans, polo shirt, and loafers, his hair slicked back—delivering high fives to aspiring athletes (many of them Jewish) in an array of colorful swim caps, it wasn’t until Michael Phelps took a record-setting eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008 (blowing former record-holder and Jewish sports hero Mark Spitz out of the water) that things got crazy.
Suddenly there was a huge influx of parents upping their kids’ lessons from one day to two, from two days to three. People were wait-listed for their favorite instructors and preferred class times. One mom was even seen spreading her son’s arms wide to check for a potential 6-foot wingspan like Phelps is said to have. (OK, that was me.)
But I’d be lying if I said I wanted Boaz to become the next Phelps. Nor do I want him to grow up to become the next Lochte, partying in nightclubs and wearing diamond-encrusted dental wear. But has Lochte further inspired me to drag my kids to lessons and fulfill the Talmudic commandment even when I’m so exhausted from work that I can barely see straight and I can’t find a clean bathing suit? Yes, absolutely.
It’s not that he’s is the best swimmer the sport has ever known—although he did snag the coveted 2011 Golden Goggle Award for male swimmer of the year—or that he’ll ultimately leave as lasting a legacy as Phelps (or even 1984 Olympic gold-medalist-turned-ESPN-swimming-analyst Rowdy Gaines). It’s just that for right now, he’s everywhere, serving as a constant reminder that everybody looks healthier and happier when they’re physically fit, and wet. Before Phelps, swimming was about as dynamic an audience draw as a Yule log video, but Lochte has amped it up to a whole new level, taking swimming from a summer pastime to a major spectator sport. It’s not just that I want my kids to swim; they want to swim, and a lot of that is because Ryan Lochte has made swimming so totally cool.
More than all this, Lochte has inspired me to get in the pool again, rather that just dropping my kids off at lessons. Swimming is something that I love more than anything and ought to do more often but don’t because parenthood has turned me into a lazy loaf who’d rather eat a container of Israeli chocolate spread and watch, well, What Would Ryan Lochte Do? than exercise. (Last summer, I spent so many hours glued to the Olympics broadcast I started to confuse watching it with actually working out.) Because if the Talmud tells us to teach our kids to swim, then it must be telling us to swim ourselves—for how can we truly teach something for which we have no ability?
But what I admire most about Lochte is how much he truly cares about kids, the next generation of Speedo-clad freestylers. (Speedos don’t repulse me in the same way they do most Americans—maybe I was a fat Frenchman in a former life.) In his off time from training and fulfilling his myriad small-screen commitments, the world’s most lovably dumb athlete visits aquatic centers all over the United States, participating in swim clinics and coaching kids on proper form and backstroke drills. In 2011, he paid a visit to the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center in Pasadena, where my kids now take lessons. We missed him by several months, but if he’s been there once, there’s a chance he might show up again, right? With his reality show bound to become one of the greatest couch-surfing spectacles this spring, who knows what other rabbinical wisdom Lochte could impart if we actually met him in person?
In the meantime, Ayla (now 4 years old) trots about in her Ryan Lochte swim cap that I bought for $7 on eBay, and Boaz (now 6) bounces around excitedly at the mere mention of swimming. I even tried to get Boaz to wear one of the Speedos they sell at the Rose Bowl swim shop featuring a photo of Lochte on the price tag, but when I pulled one off the rack and held it up, he went screaming in the other direction. That’s OK, though. He was headed straight for the pool.
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