But Lochte’s case is different, and his plan for redemption should be different. Phelps’s meltdown was as a private citizen and not as an ambassador for America on the world stage, wearing his official USA Swimming regalia. I was happy to see Phelps turn his life around and swim himself to a different, more mature place. But Lochte? I’m not looking for a four-year commitment to his winning a bunch of gold medals in Tokyo. No, I’m not looking for that kind of victory. I’m looking for a payback to all those kids I saw in all those swimming pools I visited around the United States who were excited about USA Swimming and its swimmers, including Lochte.
Here’s what I suggest: USA Swimming and the U.S. Olympic Committee should offer Lochte a trip around the country—to the kinds of communities I have seen, ones that use swimming as a way to teach the value of discipline, dependability, teamwork, and good behavior. They could ask Lochte to search his soul and come up with some thoughtful, articulate, and truthful way of explaining his behavior in Rio—how it spun out of control and what he learned from it. Then he could tell that story to the nation’s kids—one pool at a time.
He could start with some of the nation’s more than 2,700 YMCAs, which are invariably welcoming, from Burlington, Vermont, to Redlands, California, and from Duluth, Minnesota, to Columbus, Mississippi. YMCAs find it perfectly natural that a stranger or an out-of-towner might show up—just like libraries do. In Rapid City, South Dakota, for example, the receptionist waived the daily entry fee for me because she was worried that I only had an hour before closing—not enough to get my money’s worth. That wasn’t unusual. They wish you a good workout when you enter and ask if you enjoyed it when you leave.
The Ys and other public pools are as democratic a place as you’ll find anywhere in a town. All strata of a town’s society mingle at the public pools. You can tell in many towns that the hot showers at the Y are the nicest that some patrons are able to afford. You can see, as in Holland, Michigan, the mix of cultures at the pool on the board that showcases the teenage swimming record-holders, from the traditional Dutch stock of Vans to the more recent arrivals of Garcias. In my hometown of Washington, D.C., I run into everyone at the Y, from kids attending the elite Sidwell Friends School—a frequent choice of presidential families—to kids from Woodrow Wilson High School, which is next door to the pool and whose enrollment is 46 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic, and 24 percent white.
In Winters, California, the public pool is next door to the library, and the kids ping-pong from one to the other during summer vacation. In Bend, Oregon, high schoolers compete as swimmers to score a first job as one of the lifeguards, who work with precision clockwork and dependability in setting up lanes or moving pool dividers. In Dodge City, Kansas, where the new public pool opened this summer, school kids of all ages give up their summer sleep-ins to start swim-team practice by 7 a.m., before the pool officially opens for fun. In Greenville, South Carolina, you can swim in a different YMCA or public pool nearly every day of the week, every day of the year.