As the mob jostled with two dozen police officers in helmets and gas masks blocking a hallway to the Senate chamber in the U.S. Capitol, a voice boomed above the din.

The shouts came from a man who in some ways resembled the other rioters — black beanie embroidered with President Trump’s name, dark sunglasses and a teal handkerchief pulled over his beard.

But Klete Keller, standing 6 feet 6, towered over the roiling sea of people. He wore a navy blue coat with “USA” emblazoned on the back in large white letters and the U.S. Olympic logo on the front that had been issued to athletes competing for Team USA. Internet sleuths and law enforcement took weeks or months to identify the bulk of more than 700 people charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack, but the jacket gave Keller away almost immediately.

The USC graduate had been among the world’s elite freestyle swimmers in the 2000s, competing in three Olympics and winning two gold medals. Friends and fellow swimmers knew him as easygoing and likable. Now they were mystified. Why had someone who spent much of his life representing his country joined the mob to attack a defining symbol of American democracy?

“That’s what has made this so confusing, so frustrating for so many people,” said Gary Hall Jr., the 10-time Olympic swimming medalist who has known Keller for more than two decades. “It seems so far outside of his character, his personality to get wrapped up in this.

Keller, 39, has pleaded guilty to a felony charge of obstructing an official proceeding before Congress and agreed to cooperate with the government’s investigation.

The prominent role played by far-right groups like the Three Percenters, Proud Boys and Oath Keepers in the attack has captured much of the public’s attention. But most of those charged, like Keller, weren’t members of extremist organizations. They held middle-class jobs. Their average age was 39, according to George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. The vast majority — 87% — were men. They came from 45 states and the District of Columbia. They carried a deep sense of grievance.

Hundreds of pages of court records, emails and interviews with more than 30 friends, teammates and associates show that Keller’s journey to the Capitol was the latest and most bewildering choice in a life beset by struggles since retiring from swimming more than a decade ago. A revolving series of jobs. Divorce. Living in his car for 10 months. A bitter child custody dispute. Allegations of erratic behavior.

His ex-wife testified in a child custody trial in October 2020 that he had attempted suicide and, after they separated, pinned her against a wall and asked whether she had “ever heard of marital rape.” Keller denied the allegation in a court filing. He described himself during the trial as “overwhelmed” and “lost” in the years after his career ended. The belonging and identity he found while swimming eluded him on dry land.

In a statement, Keller’s criminal defense attorney, Edward B. MacMahon Jr., denied the allegations by Keller’s ex-wife as “one-sided and self-serving pleadings and statements.” He noted that Keller is allowed to have unsupervised visits with his children and said he “is doing everything he can to be part of their life.”

“Mr. Keller has admitted that he made a huge mistake by entering the Capitol,” the attorney said. “He has accepted full responsibility for his actions that day and continues to work to rebuild his life and make amends for that error in judgment.”

Keller didn’t respond to requests for comment and hasn’t spoken publicly about the attack.

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