Klete Keller was somebody, a two-time Olympic gold medallist who swam in three Games. Then he was nobody, aimless, penniless and reduced to sleeping in his car. Now he is “Person 1” in court documents, identified by the FBI as a participant in the storming of the US Capitol and charged with federal crimes.
Amid the militia gear and Maga paraphernalia on display during the 6 January riot at the heart of American government, footage shows a bearded man in the Rotunda who stands out for his height and his clothes. He wears an officially-branded jacket with a United States Olympic Team patch and USA on the left sleeve and the back.
The choice of apparel, with the Olympic rings logo and Stars and Stripes flag, seemed to symbolise the perversion of patriotism among insurrectionists loyal to Donald Trump who hold the warped belief that it is their duty to agitate for the overturning of a legitimate democratic election. Aspirational emblems appropriated and debased as the president, his enablers and his acolytes crumpled a set of ideals to fit a dishonest and deranged narrative.
Then the tall man was identified by the website SwimSwam as Keller, a 38-year-old who grew up in Arizona and won gold in the 4x200m freestyle relays in Athens and Beijing. A sense of bafflement has not receded since.
— Swimming World (@SwimmingWorld) January 12, 2021
Keller, who lives 1,700 miles away from Washington in Colorado Springs, was arrested last week on charges of disorderly conduct, obstructing law enforcement and illegally entering a restricted area. He was released after an initial appearance in federal court in Denver.
He has not commented in public, so the reason for his actions during the deadly demonstration-turned insurrection on the day Congress met to certify Joe Biden’s election victory are unclear. What is certain is that, like many athletes before him, he found it hard to adjust to ordinary life after an extraordinary sporting career.
His marriage collapsed, he was unable to hold down a series of sales jobs and he struggled to afford a place to live while paying child support for his three kids. He felt bitter and angry, losing motivation and gaining weight as he ate and drank to excess. He said his money problems prompted him to live in his Ford Fusion after his divorce in 2014. He would squeeze his 6ft 6in frame into the car and try to grab some sleep in Walmart parking lots.
“I found the real-world pressure much more intimidating and much more difficult to deal with because I went from swimming to having three kids and a wife within a year and so the consequences of not succeeding were very, very real and if I didn’t make a sale or if my manager was ticked off with me, or If I got fired - oh shoot, you have no health insurance. It’s very concrete,” he told an Olympic Channel podcast.
“I felt when I failed a much more acute sense of pain and frustration and failure than I did with swimming. With swimming it was just me. All those years of success I had with swimming really gave me an inaccurate expectation of the world and so it was much harder to cope with the mini-failures I’d experience on any given day.”
He added: “I think I became a real lazy, spoiled, entitled person, just because I didn’t have the coping skills. You would think all the lessons I’d learnt in swimming would immediately transfer but it really takes a lot of work to figure out exactly how to transfer athletic lessons into real life lessons - how to put a bad day behind you in the working world.”
There were not too many rough times in the pool for Keller, whose finest moment came when he swam the anchor leg of the relay in 2004, holding off the great Australian Olympian, Ian Thorpe.
He finished fourth behind Thorpe, Pieter van den Hoogenband and Michael Phelps but ahead of Grant Hackett in the 200m freestyle in Athens, an event dubbed the “race of the century”. He also won bronze medals in the individual 400m freestyle in the 2000 and 2004 Games and a silver in the 4x200m freestyle relay in Sydney.
“To find something else that is that important, to move on to the next rung of life that you find as compelling and worth working as hard for, it’s just not an easy transition for anybody,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time Olympic swimming gold medallist, lawyer and founder of Champion Women, an equality and accountability advocacy group.
She believes that Keller’s fall underscores the need for greater assistance for athletes from all backgrounds. Especially in a sport such as swimming they might become famous for a couple of weeks every four years and be lionised as national heroes, but risk slipping back into the shadows and suffering in obscurity with scant financial security or emotional support.
“What would cause them to have mental health issues and what can we do? How can we change governance and structure so that this person can get the help that we need?” The attention on Keller, she said, could help act as a catalyst for change, “a big ‘aha!’ opportunity moment”.
Eli Bremer, who competed for the US in the modern pentathlon in Beijing, knows Keller but has not spoken with his fellow Colorado Springs resident since the incident. “I don’t want to say that the history that Klete’s been quite open about and the struggles he’s had led into what happened in Washington DC because I don’t know,” he said.
“However, I think that his overall story does shine a light on saying: these athletes are American heroes and then a lot of them do struggle afterwards with learning how to find jobs, learning how to cope with the emotional side of retiring from sports and oftentimes being a decade behind your peers. That can cause issues with your personal life, with your family, it can cause professional issues, it can cause a lot of psychological issues.”
Keller had fond memories of training in Colorado Springs, which styles itself “Olympic City USA”, and moved there after his marriage ended, attracted by the idea of riding dirt bikes in the mountains.
He grew more interested in right-wing politics in recent years but was not known as especially radical. His reputation among friends was as more of a mild-mannered goofball than a committed extremist, though one told the Washington Post Keller was “infatuated” with guns and he was increasingly supportive of Trump on social media.
He was in Washington for a pro-Trump rally last November after Biden’s election and wrote on his now-deleted Facebook page that the result was a “brazen assault on our republic and our way of life,” according to the New York Times.
No evidence has emerged to suggest he was involved in fighting or looting at the Capitol. “I don’t think he went there with any malicious intent. I hope there’s a more sophisticated story there,” Bremer said.
“When an Olympian has bad judgment of course there will be consequences but I also hope people understand, sometimes these athletes have sacrificed their body and their future for our pride as a nation when they compete in the Olympics. In my experience Klete’s a kind person, well-intentioned, laid-back, patriotic, and I think that while he made a mistake I doubt he had any intentions of doing anything harmful to our nation.”
Keller appeared on local television news in 2018 (his Olympic status unmentioned) after he became the unwitting victim of a bizarre episode with shirtless men and a dog-sitter. Still, he appeared to have turned his life around: getting engaged, finding work with a commercial real estate firm and launching a personal website, The Olympic Agent. It pledges “Gold Medal Service” to help clients “navigate the waters of real estate”.
Now he has lost his job and potentially faces a long prison sentence. “There’s really no limit to how bad things can get, I learnt that. It can always get worse,” he reflected on the podcast. “You have to maintain discipline throughout life in order to stay afloat.”