The flood of text messages, photos and videos swirling through the insular community of former Olympic swimmers left no doubt about the who, what and where: The towering figure in the videos and images, standing among the mob of rioters who had breached the U.S. Capitol and were pushing against police in the Rotunda, was unquestionably Klete Keller, the three-time Olympian and five-time medalist.
If his 6-foot-6 frame and familiar face, covered by a beard but not a mask, didn’t give away Keller’s identity to those who knew him, one chilling, telltale detail certainly did: the Team USA jacket he was wearing, with the U.S. Olympic Team patch on the front left shoulder.
But in the aftermath of last week’s abortive insurrection at the Capitol – which resulted in five deaths and left Keller, along with others who participated, facing federal charges – the questions haunting his friends, former teammates and coaches are the ones they have struggled to answer: How? And why?
How did Keller become so radicalized as to join thousands – including, according to media reports, members of white nationalist and extremist groups – in what some have characterized as an attempted overthrow of the U.S. government? Rioters smashed windows and doors, ransacked congressional offices and violently attacked U.S. Capitol Police officers, killing one of them.
And why, after working to turn his life around in recent years following a bottoming-out in 2014, would Keller risk it all in such a reckless way?
“That’s what’s so confounding. I just can’t answer those,” said Gary Hall Jr., a 10-time Olympic medalist who has known Keller since childhood and was his Olympic teammate in Sydney in 2000 and in Athens in 2004. “For him to throw everything away, I don’t understand it. It’s very, very troubling.”
Keller, 38, was charged in U.S. District Court on Wednesday with three counts related to the Jan. 6 uprising at the Capitol, in which supporters of President Donald Trump, who lost the 2020 election, smashed their way into the building and clashed with police in an attempt to disrupt the counting of electoral votes.
He was taken into custody Thursday in Colorado, where he lives, and made an initial court appearance there before being released on a personal recognizance bond. He did not respond to interview requests. If convicted of all three counts – violent entry, disorderly conduct and obstructing law enforcement – Keller could face up to 15½ years in prison.
Within the tightknit community of Olympic swimmers, Keller was known as a carefree spirit and a mighty freestyler who gained the respect of peers and a measure of national fame for anchoring the 800-meter freestyle relay in 2004 that vanquished the Australians and earned Michael Phelps the fifth of his six gold medals in Athens. Among those fellow swimmers, the news of Keller’s involvement was surprising but not particularly shocking.
Not shocking because his friends knew him to be a staunch conservative and gun aficionado – one described him as “infatuated” with guns – whose posts on social media in recent years had shown him to be an increasingly fervent Trump supporter. (Keller’s social media accounts have since been deleted, and messages to him have gone unreturned. There have been no indications Keller was armed Jan. 6.)
Most of those friends and ex-teammates were also familiar with the difficult trajectory of Keller’s post-competition life, which included a divorce and child-custody fight and a brief period of homelessness, during which Keller was living out of his car and sleeping in a Walmart parking lot.
“Klete and I no longer have a personal relationship, [as] during and since his swimming career he’s had many personal issues [that] he’s chosen not to address,” Cari Sherrill, Keller’s ex-wife and the mother of his three children, said in a text message. “That in itself has always been concerning and continues to be.”
Three-time Olympian and two-time medalist Tom Malchow, Keller’s roommate in Sydney and Athens and a Team USA captain at the latter, said he hadn’t spoken to Keller in about seven years but now regrets not reaching out to him.
“I think we all wish we had done a little more to help him find his way outside of the Olympics,” Malchow said. “A lot of people struggle after their careers end. You’re a hero. You have all these people catering to your needs, taking care of you. And when that ride is over, real life, unfortunately, is just different.”
But at least amongthe former teammates, coaches and swimming insiders interviewed for this story,the news was still surprising. Because nothing, they said, revealed any inclination Keller might go so far as to travel from his Colorado Springs home to Washington and join thousands of other Trump supporters in violently protesting the certification of an election the president falsely characterized as fraudulent.
“I just don’t know what would have sparked this in him,” said longtime U.S. Olympic coach Jon Urbanchek, who has remained in touch with Keller following the latter’s retirement from competitive swimming in 2008, having last corresponded with him in November. Keller, Urbanchek said, had “a great heart.”
Many in Keller’s circles also knew that he appeared to have turned his life around in recent years, starting work as a real estate agent in Colorado Springs and launching a website, theolympicagent.com, that touted his athletic achievements – “I bring an Olympic effort to the business,” his website reads – and included pictures of Keller with his kids. Some were aware Keller had also recently gotten engaged. (The most recent brokerage to employ Keller, Hoff & Leigh, scrubbed all references to him from its website and said in a statement he had resigned from his position.)
“He was just starting to pull his life back together,” Hall said in a telephone interview. “He had a job. He got engaged. To see all that implode is just heartbreaking.”
Like others interviewed for this story, Hall, who has known Keller since they came up together as kids through the same Phoenix-area swim club, had a difficult time squaring the Klete he knew during their competition days with the one he saw on those videos.
“Klete and I stand on opposite sides of the political spectrum,” Hall said. “What any protester did in storming the Capitol is a despicable act. I want to be very clear: I condemn that behavior. Having said that, my heart is broken. I feel such a heavy weight knowing that he was involved. Because somewhere underneath all that mess, he’s a decent guy that his teammates care deeply about.”
‘A lost soul’
On the “Today” show the morning of Aug. 18, 2004, host Katie Couric called him “the Giant Keller” – a pun that made reference both to Keller’s height and the fact that the night before, in the finals of the 800-meter freestyle relay, he had held off Australian legend Ian Thorpe in the anchor leg to win gold for Team USA.
“I knew Klete would come through,” Phelps told the media. “His swim was the reason we won that relay. He held off the greatest 200[-meter] freestylist in history.”
Why was Keller, 22 at the time, chosen to face off against the great Thorpe, instead of one of the rising young stars – Phelps, who swam the first leg, or Ryan Lochte, who went second?
“Every time we really wanted to win a relay, we put Klete at anchor,” Urbanchek, Keller’s coach through much of his competitive career and a coach on all three Olympic teams for which Keller competed, said. “He wasn’t afraid of straining until it hurt. He wasn’t afraid to be challenged.”
Malchow, who trained with Keller under Urbanchek, called Keller a model teammate, saying: “He was a fun guy. He always had your back. He’d be the first one there to pick you up after a bad race.”
Longtime University of Southern California and Olympic team coach Dave Salo, who trained Keller at Trojan Swim Club for the latter’s final Olympics in 2008, recalled him as a carefree type who would sometimes “saunter into practice a little late,” unconcerned with drawing “the wrath of his coach and teammates.” He said Keller, who had dropped out of USC in 2001 to turn professional and focus on swimming, finished his degree in public policy and real estate development after the Beijing Olympics.
“I would run into him periodically,” Salo said. “He was very focused on finishing that degree. He felt it was unfinished business.”
But Keller struggled acutely to adapt to life after swimming, telling NBCSports.com in 2014 that he should have retired after the 2004 Olympics. Instead, he trained for another four-year “quad” culminating in Beijing 2008, where he won another gold in the 800-meter freestyle relay – his second gold, to go with one silver and two bronzes.
“I should’ve put a lot more time into thinking about . . . what I was doing after swimming. I just got tunnel vision with swimming,” Keller said then. “You get done, and you’re like, ‘Oh, God, what do you do now?’ If I could go back, I probably wouldn’t have done another Olympics. I would’ve retired after Athens and probably went back to school.”
By January 2014, Keller was divorced, jobless and, briefly, homeless, according to an interview he gave to USA Swimming’s website in 2018. At one point, he said, he went four years without being allowed to see his kids, despite living just 10 minutes from them. In the story, which has been removed from USA Swimming’s website, Keller took responsibility for how his life bottomed out.
“Within a matter of a few years, I went from Olympic gold medalist to husband, homeowner, guy with a series of sales jobs – life insurance, software, medical devices, financial products – and father of three, and I had a really difficult time accepting who I was without swimming in my life,” he said. “I really struggled with things. I didn’t enjoy my work, and that unhappiness and lack of identity started creeping into my marriage.”
Keller also described his bout of homelessness, during which he lived out of a Ford Fusion. “[A]t 6-foot-6, it was challenging to make room to sleep,” he recalled. He slept in the parking lots of Walmarts and rest stops, using a gym membership he had managed to hold on to to take showers.
“In swimming, you have to be selfish to a large degree to be successful. But when you are a husband and father, you have to be more selfless – and I wasn’t,” he said then. “As I look back now, I wasn’t a very good husband. But now, I feel like I’ve come through the darkness and found the light that I always wanted and needed to be happy. I’m getting there.”
Olympic swimmers, even across different generations, often speak of their ranks as a fraternity and refer to each other as brothers and sisters. But many lost touch with Keller during this dark period. The 2018 story on USA Swimming’s website served as a comforting bit of news: It looked as if Keller had turned his life around.
That sense of comfort was shattered in the aftermath of Jan. 6. Seeing Keller in those videos drove the reality home with his former teammates: He wasn’t better. Their optimism was replaced by horror and those haunting questions: How? Why?
One of Keller’s former Olympic teammates, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss Keller’s apparent descent, drew a line from the “goofy, oafish” swimmer he knew in the 2000s to the aimless, rudderless, 30-something man who, he speculated, became a perfect candidate to fall into a radical, conservative rabbit hole of conspiracy theorists and rioters involved in insurrection.
“He was a lost soul, long before the Trump thing,” said Rowdy Gaines, a three-time gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics who, as NBC’s lead commentator since 1996, serves as the unofficial voice and face of the sport to its many fans. “He hit some hard times where he went through some things in life that probably wouldn’t be real good for anyone. Sometimes when you get lost, you become a follower instead of a leader.”
A towering figure
Mel Stewart started getting the text messages only a few days after the attack on the Capitol. A video shot by a reporter from right-wing media outlet Townhall showed a figure who looked a lot like Klete Keller, towering over the other people in the video as they surged into the Rotunda.
Stewart, a two-time Olympian and three-time medalist, is also the publisher of SwimSwam, a leading swimming website and magazine that he co-founded in 2012. Thetexts he received in the days after Jan. 6 began with a trickle and, as word got around the Olympic swimming community, eventually became a flood.
“It was just a giant mushroom cloud going out,” Stewart said of the video. “At a certain point, I had to start telling people: ‘Yes, I’ve seen it. Stop sending it to me.’ ”
SwimSwam broke the news of Keller’s apparent involvement in the attack Monday, blasting the news well beyond the insular world of elite, Olympic-level swimming. The reactions, in some cases influenced by political viewpoint, ranged from anger to concern to indifference. Some demanded that USA Swimming or the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee strip Keller of his medals, a power neither body possesses. Others took pains to point out Keller is never shown instigating any violence toward Capitol Police, at least in the parts of the videos made public. At one point, he is seen standing calmly in the Rotunda holding a bottle of water.
“He stands out as a 6-foot-6 guy in a USA jacket,” Salo said. “But he wasn’t stealing a lectern. He didn’t seem threatening. I don’t know that there should be too much criticism of someone who was voicing their opinion. . . . I don’t think he was part of the group that was trying to do anything but protest. I think he was probably caught up in the crowd surging towards the Capitol.”
Malchow said the former teammates he has communicated with since the video came to light were mostly like-minded in condemning the act: “Obviously, he has a right to stand up and support Trump,” Malchow said. “But we also have to abide by the rule of law.”
Those in the Olympic swimming community, no matter their political bent, appeared united over one aspect of Keller’s involvement: the notion that he tarnished all of them by choosing to wear that jacket.
“The reactions I was getting were, ‘Oh, my God. I can’t believe he’s wearing the Olympic garb,’ ” said Stewart. “There was some anger.”
“It’s a terrible reflection on the sport and the Olympic team,” Hall said. “Great care is taken to remove any political agenda from Team USA. For him to drag that in by wearing the sacred colors was especially painful.”
“It embarrasses the movement when you do that,” Gaines said. “It’s embarrassing to the sport, and it’s embarrassing to my other brothers and sisters.”
Neither USA Swimming nor the USOPC has addressed questions regarding Keller, but USA Swimming sent a message to members Wednesday. “[W]hile we respect private individuals’ and groups’ rights to peacefully protest, we strongly condemned the unlawful actions taken by those at the Capitol last week,” it read. “It is very simple and very clear. Mr. Keller’s actions in no way represent the values or mission of USA Swimming.”
Gaines, who called Keller’s greatest race from the NBC broadcast booth on that August day in Athens more than 16 years before, saw something else in Keller’s choice of outerwear Jan. 6: a call for help.
“I’m not a psychologist, but maybe he was trying to draw attention to himself,” Gaines said. “Maybe it’s one of those things where you want to get caught, just so you can finally get some help.”
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