Patriot Games. Klete Keller was chosen to anchor a formidable American quartet led off by Michael Phelps in the final of the 4 x 200m freestyle relay at the 2004 Olympics. A measure of his standing in the sport. When he entered the water for the last leg, his team had a slight lead over the more fancied Australians, unbeaten in the event for seven years, and he was soon chased down by the great Ian Thorpe. Somehow, some way, Keller produced the swim of his life, just enough to edge out the Thorpedo and to win by 0.13 of a second. On deck, even Phelps went berserk as the Athens Aquatic Centre resounded to a chant of “USA! USA! USA!”
Patriot Games II – the unfortunate sequel. Wearing an athlete issue US Olympic team jacket with a distinctive badge on the arm, Keller was part of the violent mob that invaded the US Capitol in Washington DC, determined to stop the certification of Joe Biden as president on January 6th, 2021. At 6ft 6in and 113kg (250lbs), he cut an enormous, bearded figure and was caught on camera jostling with riot police in the Rotunda, extending the middle finger to various authorities, and shouting “F**k Pelosi!” and “F**k Schumer!” Upon finally being ejected from the building, he discarded his jacket in a trash can, took a hammer to his phone, and began frantically deleting social media posts.
In terms of an effort to avoid detection, it was ham-fisted and too little too late. Many in the swimming community watched those terrible events unfold live on national television and espied his familiar face. Swimswam, a website devoted to the sport, soon published a story about the three-time Olympian’s involvement and, within a week, he was formally charged. Last Friday, Keller was sentenced to six months house arrest, three years of probation and 360 hours of community service.
A lighter punishment than many of his fellow travellers that day have received, the leniency was apparently down to him showing genuine remorse and co-operating with the state. No small thing in a country where half the population and the entire right-wing media still try to claim what happened was merely a case of rambunctious tourists getting out of control rather than a serious attempt to derail democracy.
Keller’s downfall appears typical of many elite athletes who discover decades of singular dedication to a sport left them ill-equipped to carve out a meaningful second life, often struggling to find a genuine purpose beyond the arena. His situation was made much worse by his becoming radicalised on social media. Like many of the previously law-abiding, largely middle-class citizens turned thuggish goons in Washington that day, he was consumed by the conspiracy theories beloved of the Trump cult, a quasi-religion that has proven especially alluring to those looking for somebody to blame for their own lives going awry. He fit that bill too.
From the moment he retired from the pool, where he won the first of five Olympic medals the summer he graduated from high school, Keller had problems adjusting. Estranged from his family, he battled mental health issues, had paranoid episodes, and made suicide threats. He got married and had three children but, at one point, his wife, Cari Sherrill, discovered he was leaving the house every morning for a phantom job that didn’t exist. He cycled through more than a dozen different occupations and the marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce, a bitter custody battle, and him spending 10 months living out of a Ford Fusion, a vehicle not designed for somebody of his physical dimensions to sleep in.
“All those years of success I had with swimming really gave me an inaccurate expectation of the world,” said Keller in 2018. “It was much harder to cope with the little mini-failures I would experience on any given day. I wasn’t a good employee or worker for the longest time because I expected it all to come to me as easily as swimming did. I had talked to my mentors and they had said, ‘Listen, you’re going to have no problem going in and immediately making six figures right out of the gate. Everybody’s going to want to hire you.’ ... When those things didn’t happen, it really affected my outlook.”
In November, 2020, Keller flew to Washington from Colorado to participate in the Million MAGA March, a gathering of irate Trumpers to protest against alleged irregularities immediately after the presidential election. He took the cross-country trip again six weeks later and this time made what he now says was “the worst mistake of his life” when storming Congress. In a letter to the court explaining his actions, he admitted to having drawn parallels between the perceived unfairness of the electoral process and the way he’d lost custody of his own kids in the legal system.
Of the four Americans who stood on the podium for the anthem following their epic victory in a relay often described as one of the greatest in the history of swimming, three lost their way in the two decades since. Twice arrested for drunk driving, Phelps has very publicly battled gambling addiction and depression. Ryan Lochte became a national joke when he lied about vandalising a gas station at the Rio Olympics and was later suspended from competition for using a “prohibited intravenous infusion”. Then there’s Keller. Once star-spangled, now Trump-mangled.