Olympian Klete Keller rebuilt his life following struggles. Then came the Capitol riot

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Nathan Fenno
·5 min read
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Klete Keller prepares to compete in 200-meter freestyle during the 2008 U.S. Swimming Olympic trials
Klete Keller prepares to compete in the semifinal of the 200-meter freestyle during the U.S. Swimming Olympic trials on June 30, 2008, in Omaha. (Donald Miralle / Getty Images)

Klete Keller, the two-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer from USC, was charged Wednesday in connection with the riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, the criminal complaint charges Keller with knowingly entering or remaining in a restricted building, disorderly conduct in the Capitol building and impeding law enforcement.

Keller’s presence in the Capitol rotunda Jan. 6 became public after a video posted to social media by Townhall Media senior writer Julio Rosas captured a tall, bearded man wearing a distinctive U.S. Olympic team jacket in the midst of the chaotic scene.

“At approximately fourteen minutes and thirty-eight seconds, PERSON 1 is still in the Rotunda, and the back of his jacket is again visible. PERSON 1 stands taller than a number of individuals around him and can clearly be seen as law enforcement officers repeatedly attempt to remove him and others from the Rotunda,” the complaint by FBI Special Agent Matthew R. Barofsky said.

“Additional open-source research revealed that media outlets such as SwimSwam, a news organization that covers competitive swimming and other related sports, identified this individual as possibly KLETE DERIK KELLER. Your affiant has confirmed this identification.”

It wasn’t clear whether Keller, who didn’t return a message to his cellular phone, had been taken into custody.

“He’s not what people think or are making him out to be,” said Jon Urbanchek, the legendary swimming coach who worked with Keller for several years and exchanges a couple of emails with him each month. “He’s a big body with a soft heart.”

Keller, 38, worked as an independent contractor for a commercial real estate company in Colorado Springs, Colo. He removed his social media accounts and resigned Tuesday as news spread about his appearance at the riot.

“Hoff & Leigh supports the right of free speech and lawful protest but we cannot condone actions that violate the rule of law,” the company said in a statement.

Representatives of USA Swimming didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the charges. The U.S. Olympic Committee and USC declined to comment.

In a previous statement, the USOC said, "We respect private individuals’ and groups’ rights to peacefully protest but in no way condone the actions taken by those at the Capitol last week."

Keller found stardom early thanks to his powerful 6-foot-6 frame, winning two medals at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 at age 18, then adding three individual NCAA titles in 2001 and 2002 while swimming for USC. He moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., to train with Club Wolverine and turned professional. At the time, Urbanchek described him as “God’s gift to swimming” despite his young charge’s easygoing demeanor.

“You just can't get upset with him,” Urbanchek told the Ann Arbor News in 2004. "He's like a little kid. He's very caring in every situation. He's the softest human being you could meet.”

In a profile on an athlete management company’s website that was deleted this week, Keller described the swimmers he patterned himself after: “What struck me most about those guys was how calm and self-entertained they always were in regard to training and competition. They didn't take themselves too seriously and they had fun all while putting in quality work at the same time.”

Until recent days, Keller had been best known for anchoring the 800-meter freestyle relay for the U.S. during the Athens Olympics in 2004. He held off Australian sensation Ian Thorpe to win by 0.13 seconds — helped by teammates Ryan Lochte, Michael Phelps, Peter Vanderkaay — in an event Australia dominated in past years.

“He will not let you get ahead,” Eddie Reese, who coached the U.S., said of Keller after the race.

Keller returned to Los Angeles in 2007 to train with then-USC coach Dave Salo and the Trojan Swim Club. The pairing worked. Keller was part of the team that won gold in the 800 freestyle at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Salo said in an email Wednesday he hasn’t been in touch with Keller for several years.

But Keller struggled after appearing in three Olympics and winning five medals. A lengthy profile posted on USA Swimming’s website in 2018 — it was removed this week without explanation — described the fallout from Keller’s divorce finalized in 2015. He ended up unable to see his three children and living out of his car.

“I didn’t know where to go, because I didn’t really have anywhere to go, so I just traveled to see the most important people in my life, looking for advice and direction,” Keller said in the story. “I was paying child support for my kids and couldn’t afford a place, so I lived in my car for almost a year. I had a Ford Fusion at the time, so at 6-foot-6, it was challenging to make the room to sleep. But I made it work.”

He eventually got his real estate license and settled in Colorado Springs. On a website called “The Olympic Agent” that promoted his business, Keller outlined his philosophy.

“I want to leave people with a great impression of the real estate industry,” the site said. “Like anyone else, my firm has the tools to find, research and market properties and projects. What’s different is my energy. Being newer to the industry I work hard for my clients and push all the way to the finish of the ‘race’ with them.”

Urbanchek said he would hike or fish with Keller when visiting Colorado Springs, but they didn’t talk politics. Campaign finance records show Keller donated $50 last year to a Republican fundraising platform. The criminal complaint Wednesday alleged a much different level of involvement.

“Colorado state records and publicly available information list KELLER’s height at 6 feet, 6 inches tall, and PERSON 1 appears to be one of the tallest individuals in the video depicting individuals in the Rotunda,” the complaint said. “Third, open-source research revealed that KELLER is a three-time Olympic athlete and Olympic Gold Medalist, and PERSON 1 appears to be wearing a United States Olympic Team jacket in the video showing him in the Rotunda.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.