Athletes are hit or miss in terms of personality. Some have no social skills, some are total jackasses and some are sweethearts. Two of those sweethearts happened to be around our group Saturday in Gainesville.
Heading into Grog House Saturday, my friends and I were in line for about an hour (you'll wait that long for free beer). Swimmer Ryan Lochte was in the same line. When Grog finally emptied out enough to let more people in, Lochte was able to get to the front and get in. While my friend complained about that, I reminded him that Lochte has three Olympic gold medals. I think that might have been a tiebreaker. We when we get in about 15 minutes later, Lochte is behind the side bar, pouring Natty Light for a few hundred sweaty kids. Walking around the floor later, Lochte mingled with everyone, shook the hand of every guy who extended it, chugged a beer with my friend, and danced with every girl who wanted a dance, including another friend of mine.
In my time in Gainesville, I've seen walk-on basketball players ask for VIP access in downtown bars and a practice squad quarterback stiff arm a girl off a stool. But I have never seen an Olympic and World Champion. And I have never seen an athlete who was willing to chat up anyone and was at ease with everyone in the bar. Yes, I'm going on only about 3 hours of observation and he did cut line. But, Lochte seemed like he is a man of the people and for someone who was just named the Best American in his sport that is tremendous.
The only thing Lochte and Ali Gardiner have in common is that they were both very good athletes at UF and they are cool people. But Lochte, because he has such a distinctive look and has been on TV for the last few summers, gets more attention. Gardiner looks like another student at a tailgate. When my friends recognized her, and mentioned her grand slam walkoff against Alabama in the College World Series semifinal, she lit up. For athletes in minor sports like softball, they never get the recognition they deserve. They work just as hard as Tim Tebow or Brandon Spikes, but because they are not on TV 24/7, you don't know them. (For example, Gardiner was wearing a UF tank top and a few sorority girls kept trying to move her pony tail to show the shirt to other people. This was hilarious to me because these sorority girls thought the biggest contribution Gardiner had made to UF was wearing a cool shirt.) Gardiner appreciated that my friends wanted to congratulate her. She ended up talking to them a few times after that about sports (she is playing for a pro travel team along with Stacey Nelson and Kim Waleszonia), school and common connections (she knows former Gator Drew Miller, I once knocked the ball out of his hands in a play at the plate in IM softball).
As a sports reporter in school and now, I know that as athletes, Lochte and Gardiner could have blown everyone off who was not part of their group. But they didn't. The pessimist says Lochte and Gardiner were just being nice because it was an exciting weekend. Maybe that is accurate and you can believe that. I'll instead be proud that my school gave us two champions and absolute sweethearts.