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The swimmer

  Ryan Lochte meets the press at the 2013 Mel Zajac Jr. International Canada Cup at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Ryan Lochte meets the press at the 2013 Mel Zajac Jr. International Canada Cup at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Question: Who is the greatest short-course swimmer to date?

Hint: It isn’t Michael Phelps or Mark Spitz or Johnny Weissmuller.

It’s Ryan Lochte, whose 21st gold medal came in the 800-meter free relay at the FINA World Short Course Championships Thursday in Doha. It was the event that launched him on the road to short-course history in 2004. 

Lochte doesn’t always get the respect he deserves. For one thing, he has swum in the shadow of Michael Phelps – much as Novak Djokovic has played in the shadow of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. And it’s never easy to be “merely” excellent in the face of immortality.

For another, Lochte did himself no favors at the London Olympics, at which he was supposed to emerge from Phelps’ shadow, by underperforming – if you can call five medals underperforming – and allowing himself to be packaged as a frat-boy airhead.

The real Ryan Lochte is a superb swimmer with a big heart who gives away medals to youngsters at meets, signs every autograph, opens his home to fellow swimmers when they need a place to stay and even drove hundreds of miles to attend the funeral of a swimmer he didn’t even know. And while he may not be intellectual, he’s smarter and more articulate in interviews than our TMZ culture would have you believe.

He’s also managed to be both the great rival and a loyal friend to Phelps, standing by him through his drunk-driving crises without excusing what he has done. That’s no easy balancing act.

At Doha, he’s found himself somewhat eclipsed by the upstarts, finishing second and third in races he once dominated.

But only somewhat. The indelible image of Lochte from the games is of him smiling and applauding his 800-meter free relay teammates – Conor Dwyer, Matt McLean and Tyler Clary – as they raised their linked hands in triumph.

It’s hard to imagine the sun setting on the sunny Lochte.