So effortlessly did Keller glide along life’s surface that for a long time few people had any inkling of his personal struggles away from the pool. In the months before the 2004 Athens Olympics, for example, Keller endured a stretch of sleeplessness and malaise that culminated in what his coach at the time, Jon Urbanchek, described as an “emotional breakdown.”
Keller rebounded to deliver one of the signature moments of those Games, holding off the Australian star Ian Thorpe over the final 100 meters of their anchor legs to clinch the gold for the United States in the 4×200 freestyle relay. It was his second medal of the Olympics, and the fourth of five he would eventually claim in his decorated international career.
He later admitted it was a mistake to stick with swimming after his star turn in Greece. In a 2014 interview with NBC Sports, Keller said he regretted that he had not retired after Athens. Around this time, he told a different interviewer, he had entertained the idea of enrolling at Arizona State to study criminology. But unsure of his path, Keller chose to stay with what he knew.
“It’s not right, but I still probably hold some bitterness toward myself mostly, but also a little bit toward my sport, because I let myself get too deep into it,” Keller said at the time.
After earning a third freestyle relay medal — his second gold — at the 2008 Beijing Games, Keller walked away for good. Having finally earned his bachelor’s degree, he married and started a family. Once again, at least outwardly, he appeared to be moving forward with ease.
But jobs in finance and sales didn’t pan out. His marriage fell apart, and a contentious divorce kept him from seeing his young daughter and two sons for long periods. Unemployed and homeless, he spent months living out of his Ford Fusion, he said in an interview with U.S.A. Swimming’s website in 2018. He kept up his gym membership, he said, only so he would have a place to shower.
“Great person, great soul, great teammate,” said Tom Malchow, a teammate of Keller’s at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. “But he just had a hard time finding his place in society outside the pool.”