Ryan Lochte's a "loving" and "caring" person ... people just don't realize it, YET.
TMZ Sports talked to Lochte at LAX Tuesday ... when we asked if his upcoming appearance on "Dancing With the Stars" would help repair his image.
(In case ya missed it ... dude's got a little bit of a PR problem.)
Lochte's answer is really interesting. It's clear he believes he's totally misunderstood.
We also asked Ryan about his skills on the dance floor ... and whether his work in the pool gives him an edge in the ballroom.
Check out the clip!