Olympic champion Ryan Lochte made an emphatic return to competition Wednesday, swimming the fourth-fastest time by an American in the 200-meter individual medley during a time trial in the U.S. national championships at Stanford University.
"I'm back, woo!" Lochte proclaimed in his opening remarks on the pool deck at Avery Aquatic Center after qualifying for next year's U.S. Olympic trials with the time of 1 minute, 57.88 seconds. "It's been a long three years but it's good to be back, get on those blocks and race again."
Lochte is entered in the 100 butterfly, 100 and 200 backstroke and 200 and 400 IM this week, though he hasn't decided which events he will focus on for the Tokyo Olympics
"I don't do that much anymore," he said. "I've been splotchy with my swimming. Family trumps everything. Swimming has been my second priority. Nationals, for me is a stepping stone to see where I'm at in the swimming world. It's a long journey to next year to see what I can do."
Michael Phelps has told his old rival and teammate that making another Olympics is going to be that much harder.
"You're older. You're different. Your body changes. Your mentality is different. You can't do as much in the pool," Phelps told The Associated Press recently. "The other things outside the pool take up your time. For him, if he truly wants to come back and be at that level, he does know what it takes to get there. He has to be willing to do the work. If not, it's not going to be as good as he probably hoped."
Lochte said he's not the same man he was three years ago, when he partied hard during and following the 2016 Rio Olympics, in which he was involved in a fake police report. Last year, he was given a 14-month suspension for receiving an infusion of vitamin B-12 above the allowed limit.
The meet is his first event since the suspension ended last week. During that time, he checked himself into a rehab center for six weeks for alcohol abuse.
"There was a point in my life where I needed to change, so I checked myself in," he said. "My wife was pregnant and I needed to help her. I did all the classes and got out. Since Caiden and my new daughter Liv, I have a new perspective on life."
He said he has limited himself to a glass of wine to celebrate the birth of his daughter but that's been the extent of his alcohol intake since going to rehab.
"There are bigger and better things in my life," he said. "I'm glad I went to rehab. I needed help and I came out a better man."
A chance to compete in his fifth Olympics motivates him in the pool. His family drives him to succeed.
"I'm not trying to prove anything to anyone," Lochte said. "My big goal is 2020 and to reach the podium. I do it for me and my family. I'm having fun again. I haven't had fun since the 2012 Olympics. My wife and kids have been my backbone. It's awesome."
Phelps said Lochte's best chance to make another Olympics may be in the relays, particularly the 800 freestyle.
"It has to be in your heart. That's the biggest thing to know," Phelps said. "At this age, if deep down you don't want to do it, it's going to be that much harder."
AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry contributed to this report.