At about 8:30 p.m. British time, Ryan Lochte tweeted the above message. I decided to take him up on his offer. So within minutes of the tweet I was babbling to a cab driver — who clearly didn’t know who Ryan is — about how important it was to get to the Punchbowl quickly so I could gawk at and hopefully talk to a super-famous Olympian.
This is the Punchbowl. It’s in Mayfair, and very close to where I recently had a very nice Olympics-related lunch. It’s a venue owned by Madonna’s ex-husband, Guy Ritchie, and apparently a well-known celebrity haunt. I’d never heard of it, but I’ve lived in New York for the past three years and I’m more of a “drink wine at home in sweatpants” kind of person anyway. No celebrities were present tonight — other than Ryan Lochte and fellow Team USA swimmer Conor Dwyer.
I arrived at about 9:20. I think I was the first “fan” to make it — which was awkward. I squeezed my way through crowd around the bar at the front of the pub, finding no Ryan, and wandered into the seating area in the rear. I scanned the room, and oh, no big deal, Ryan Lochte is just sitting there with Conor Dwyer and some other people at a table and they’re eating and it’s a small group and totally not what I was expecting (velvet ropes, a throne, and rhinestone high-tops, obviously).
By the way, Conor really doesn’t get enough credit in the hot male swimmer stakes. I mean:
But anyway, moving on:
Even though I’m a reporter who’s supposed to be “cool” about interviewing the famous, I was so stunned at all of this normalcy (Conor and Ryan’s pecs aside) that my inner monologue really started rambling. Do I really want be That Guy who interrupts dinner with friends, even if one of them asked for it on Twitter?
I took a minute or five to re-group, and by re-group I mean order an alcoholic cider. By the time I’d gulped it down and formulated my approach, three other iPhone wielding fans had made it Ryanside. They turned out to be Yale students in London for a summer program at the London School of Economics, and had been watching the women’s soccer final at a nearby Live Screen when they caught the tweet and booked it to the Punchbowl. The two girls wore official London 2012 tees, which they worried made them look too crazed. I clued them in on his spot in the back corner, and shamelessly tagged along as they approached Ryan. Approaching him with other people felt less scary.
I took a photo of them with Ryan, the girls visibly swooning in his presence. And then I briskly shook hands with Ryan myself, got ludicrously starstruck and tongue-tied, said something like “I’m a fan, big fan, yeah good” and then walked away feeling like a tool. I clearly needed to re-group some more.
While nursing another cider or two over the next hour, I watched as group after group of fans — members of the Lochte Nation — made it to the Punchbowl. The Brits at the bar paid them no attention.
The steadily flowing fans all seemed to get enough time with the hot-bodied athletes to feel like their trip had been worthwhile. I lost count a half hour or so in, having been distracted by an attractive Canadian athlete there by coincidence, but I’d estimate they met a solid 40 to 50 fans. Later arrivals appeared to have seen the tweet and dressed to impress, whereas the earlier groups likely just ran straight to Ryan immediately after they saw the tweet. (Only two guys other than myself were part of the Lochte pilgrimage that I could see, and one of those had mutual friends with Conor.) By this point Ryan and Conor were holding court at the far corner of the bar, meaning fans wanting to find them and fawn over them would need to walk the length of it to spot them with their beady, mascara-laden eyes. I’d hear over and over again the sharp intake of breath, the “OMG it’s him, he’s there,” the “he’s so hot, hotter than on TV,” and the “let’s get a drink and look cool before going over.”
Ryan made time for everyone, his manners impeccable throughout. (So were Conor’s, though he was paid slightly less attention.) Compared to the crowd of suited Londoners, he stood out in a grey “BOWIE” t-shirt, bright blue pants with a long chain hanging from the left-side pocket, beat-up Keds, and a few pieces of bling, including a silver cross pendant and a bracelet. And yes, he did look good.
Ryan’s manager dragged him upstairs at one point, to what I believe was a private event for more hugs and photos. He then went outside to film a short video interview. At this point he was swarmed by under-18 fans who couldn’t get into the pub, and yes, did more hugs and photos. Now it was 11 p.m. and the last-call lights had come on.
With said manager’s blessing, I asked Ryan to film a quick video for a really good friend of mine named Amy who would certainly consider herself one of his biggest fans. My editor here at Buzzfeed — also a crazy Lochte fan [Ed. note: it’s true] — is Amy, too. So this shout-out’s for her as well [Ed. note: *DYING*]:
I then threw some quick questions at him, rapid-fire. What was it like to tweet his location and actually have (lots of) fans show up? “A little surprising, but good,” he said, “I didn’t expect people to come at all… but it’s fine that they did. I mean I asked.” How is he finding his reasonably new-found fame? “Weird, but in a good way. Sometimes the paparazzi are a bother.”
I begged for gossip from the Athletes’ Village, but it seems like what happens there stays there — he couldn’t even label one country as crazier than the rest. (I’ve been asking athletes around the Olympic Park this day in, day out — it’s always the same canned response.) He did say he’s dealt with a few starstruck fellow athletes, no doubt graciously. And what about all the reality TV news — will he really be on Dancing With the Stars? If he gets his way, yes. He said he’s requested a spot on the next season’s cast and it’s all in the works. He wants to tap other TV markets too — when I asked if he’d be interested in appearing on British TV, should the right offer come in, he gave a resounding “hell yeah.” (Not quite a “hell jeah,” sadly, but still.)
As it happens, Ryan’s name has been linked with Celebrity Big Brother over the past few days in internet forums. So I asked specifically about that — the show remains a British institution, and a new season starts Wednesday, so a Lochte appearance would be well-timed. For the first time in our short but sweet chat, Ryan clammed up a little, and said that was something I’d need to talk to his manager about. Considering how forthcoming he’d been with the DWTS details, I wondered if his reticence meant something more (participants on the show have to deny their involvement until the show’s premiere night). It was an awkward, abrupt turn of phrase that seemed out of character, like a line he’d been fed to avoid a subject he couldn’t discuss.
Also, he said he liked my beat-up high tops that even have a hole in the heel (which I’ve been meaning to get fixed — not that I brought it up and drew his attention to it). This was high praise, coming from a guy with a penchant for these:
So, a successful evening. I’m kind of a snarky bitch, but I couldn’t find a bad word to say about Ryan, his cheerfully respectful demeanor, and the way he interacted with his giggly fans. If I hadn’t spent all my cash on my own drinks for the night, I’d have bought him the pint he’d first mentioned in his tweet. Jeah!