Panama City Beach - He went from being a well-known Olympic swimmer to an international sensation almost overnight. And Saturday Ryan Lochte was in Panama City Beach. He's the spokesperson for the Mac Crutchfield Foundation which held their annual fundraiser at Spinnaker Beach Club.
Autographs and photos have become second nature for Olympic gold medalist Ryan Lochte, but Saturday, it was all to support a cause he's passionate about, the Mac Crutchfield Foundation. An avid swimmer, Mac was just 12 years old when he died in 2008. His dreams of swimming in college and his heart for paralympians live on through his foundation. Lochte is the spokesperson. "The Crutchfield family came to UF where I was training and asked if I could speak, be a spokesperson, at their banquet. I said sure, by all means. Just hanging out with them for that one day, it just felt like family," said Lochte. Soon after he volunteered to be the foundation's primary spokesperson.
Mac's mom sees Ryan as a son. "When you get to spend time with Ryan and see, that is Mac grown up, that is his heart and his spirit through Ryan. He never forgets Mac's anniversary date. He will text me late at night and say I love you, I know today has been hard for you. You don't find that, not at that level of an athlete. He is pure of heart," said Maggie Crutchfield.
Hundreds lined up to meet him Saturday, along with fellow gold medalists Conor Dwyer and Paralympian Justin Zook. "Mac's passion for the sport of swimming is something that I truly honor," said Zook.
For young swimmers, meeting the athletes was nothing short of inspiring. "It was an amazing experience talking with the Olympians and getting to meet them. I am a swimmer myself and it's great to get their advice. Seeing people like this will really help me in the pool," said Amy Rheel. "My main goal is to make the sport of swimming bigger than what it is," said Lochte. Events like Saturday's will no doubt help make that a reality. Mac would be proud.
Mac swam for a team out of Tallahassee. This is the first time the benefit has been held in Panama City Beach. Panama City Swim Team Coach Jonathan Kaplan played a key role in making it happen. Maggie Crutchfield said she couldn't be happier with the event at Spinnaker, more than 550 people attended.
*We are not able to post the video version of this story because it includes footage from the Olympics. NBC does not allow internet use of that footage. The video you'll see in the video player is an interview with Ryan as well as a shorter version of the story above.