Commentary

Tyler Clary in the driver's seat

Updated: June 23, 2012, 8:53 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford

SAN BERNARDINO NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. -- Halfway up to where the Cloudland Truck Trail meets Highway 18, there are deep, fresh tire marks indicating that it rained not long ago. Tyler Clary steers his Toyota FJ Cruiser onto a narrow, stony side track. The engine growls in low gear, the 35-inch tires rumble over the ruts like tank treads, and the truck lurches from side to side.

Badger Canyon drops off steeply to the right, and the gray rock outcroppings and muted greens of the brush give way to a sweeping vista. John Mayer croons his acoustic version of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" from the stereo speakers. "There's fool's gold everywhere around here," Clary says to his girlfriend, Caroline Kosciusko, and a reporter who is along for the ride on an April weekend. He adds, "Not a whole lot of views get better than this."

The incline increases. "Is this a path?" Kosciusko asks. It's a valid question. The truck noses higher and higher until nothing but sky is visible through the windshield. "I cannot see," Clary admits. He leans forward as far as he can over the dashboard, but he doesn't appear tense. He exudes the control and confidence of someone who's been here before.

The truck crests the rise, the path widens and flattens out, and at least one of the passengers exhales deeply. Clary guides the truck a few hundred yards ahead to a clearing where paragliders are gathered. At least a half-dozen are airborne, silently riding the thermals, while others adjust their gear on the ground. As Clary and Kosciusko watch, a man in harness runs clumsily downhill, half-staggering in heavy boots, until the sail fills and lifts him into the void. Clary watches him with envy openly shining in his eyes.

He's not afraid to challenge Michael [Phelps] and Ryan [Lochte]. Most everyone else would give up and say, 'There's no spot for me.' This is one reason I enjoy working with him. He's a tough cookie. He doesn't get psyched out.

-- Veteran coach Jon Urbanchek on Tyler Clary

Clary isn't afraid of heights of any kind, and there are a couple of summits he has visualized for years: The top step of the podium at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, and the Olympic Games themselves. The last part of the climb starts Monday at the trials in Omaha where Clary will race in his favorite event, the 400-meter individual medley.

The U.S. trials are often justifiably called the toughest meet in the world. The depth of the field is unparalleled anywhere else and only two swimmers per event make the Olympic team. The 400 IM shapes up to be one of the toughest races at the meet; if the eight-man final plays out to form, Clary would be up against the two men who have dominated that event and several others for the past decade -- Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.

Clary is 23, a few years younger than Lochte and Phelps, who was briefly his teammate at the University of Michigan, yet Clary has been here before, too. The established stars have 22 Olympic medals between them, and one or both have set world records in each of the events Clary plans to swim at the trials: the 400 IM and the 200 backstroke, butterfly and freestyle. Yet Clary, whose seed times in the first three of those events are second to either Phelps or Lochte, is certain he's put himself in the driver's seat to make the Olympic team and to medal once he gets there.

"I've got the ability and the training and the mindset to do it," Clary says a little later when he's back on asphalt, piloting his truck toward Big Bear Lake. "It's just going to be a factor of all that coming together at the right time, which in the past has not been a problem for me. Things are so set on their course that all I have to do is relax and get out of the way and things are going to happen, and it's going to be a good outcome."

The day before, over coffee at a Starbucks near the club in Fullerton, Calif., where Clary trains, veteran coach Jon Urbanchek had been adamant that Clary's conviction is not false bravado. "He's not afraid to challenge Michael and Ryan," said Urbanchek, who spent 22 years at Michigan and has announced he will retire after London 2012. "Most everyone else would give up and say, 'There's no spot for me.' This is one reason I enjoy working with him. He's a tough cookie. He doesn't get psyched out."

In contrast to the unrelenting pre-London scrutiny of Phelps and Lochte, individually and as rivals, Clary has remained under the radar. He doesn't have a Gillette razor commercial like Lochte, and he wouldn't have packed a hotel ballroom for a press conference as Phelps did at last month's Olympic Media Summit in Dallas. Clary is the best U.S. male swimmer you've probably never heard of, and that's fine with him for the moment. He'll have a chance to change that soon enough.

Tyler Clary Bonnie D. FordTyler Clary loves computers, off-road trucking and playing sous-chef at family dinners.

'He hates to lose'

Stacy Clary has been off-roading with her son on the Cloudland trail. The angles and traction made her uncomfortable enough on a couple of occasions that she asked him to stop and let her out, then hiked up to meet him. She's also seen that look in his eyes in the paragliding launch area.

Tyler always liked a dare, craved risk and wanted to travel under his own steam. As a small child in a car seat, he'd swing his dangling legs in frustration, wanting to speed up when someone passed his mother. He put his upper teeth through his lower lip using his bed as a trampoline. He figured out how to make his remote-control, battery-operated car jump the steps.

He and his mom spent a lot of time alone together early on. Stacy left Tyler's biological father, Scott Flowers, when her baby was 3 months old. A few years later, she met Lonnie Clary, and he fell in love with her curly-haired, blue-eyed, live wire of a little boy at the same time he fell for her. They were living together when Tyler started kindergarten. He came home one day talking fitfully about being different. Everyone at his school had a dad, he said. Could Lonnie be his?

Stacy called Lonnie, a roofing contractor, at work and gave him a heads-up: Tyler was going to ask The Question. Lonnie picks up the story, recalling how Tyler met him on the front steps of the house: "He's in his PJs. It's 6:30. He can't wait for me to get out of my truck, and he says, 'Is it OK if I call you Dad?'

"So I'm crying. I'm a softy. I said, 'You can call me anything you want.' And he said, 'Thanks, Lonnie -- I mean, Dad.'"

Lonnie and Stacy married and had a daughter, Lindsey, and a son, Lonzo. They were a family that didn't sit still. They went boating and wakeboarding and water skiing; Lonnie taught the boys to hunt and shoot skeet. They rode quads and dune buggies in the sprawling Imperial Sand Dunes recreation area in far southeastern California. At 7, Tyler willed a quad up one of the bigger dunes, Oldsmobile Hill, which required a keen observation of line and serious body English to stay upright and moving. That aptitude translated into a yearning to know how things worked. By junior high school, Tyler was learning to program computers and build robots.

[+] EnlargeTyler Clary
Courtey of Tyler ClaryTyler Clary, far right, starting swimming at age 10.

The Clary home in Riverside is open and warm and bright, with a high-ceilinged kitchen that is the family's focal point. Stacy loves to cook, and Tyler, with his inborn blend of creative and methodical, likes to serve as sous-chef. At Christmas, they collaborated on prime rib roast au poivre, sweet potato soufflé with toasted coconut, homemade biscuits, green beans with almonds and two kinds of pies.

All three kids are athletic -- Lindsey swims and Lonzo plays junior hockey -- and Tyler showed promise in the pool, but it wasn't until he was about 15 that a coach named Kevin Perry at the Fullerton Aquatics Sports Team (FAST) began to push him to live up to it. Lonnie Clary says Perry was the kind of coach who became a third parent in a good way, strict and wise, pulling Tyler in for a 45-minute lecture when he was floundering in school and demanding absolute commitment in practice. Once Tyler was ready to listen to him, he blossomed.

"Our whole first year together, I hated him," Clary says at the wheel of his truck. "I was a lot better than I was allowing myself to be. I didn't know what my potential was and he did, and I didn't know the path to get there and he did. And I'm a pretty strong personality, so if someone tries to dictate to me what to do and when, and if I find any fault in it, regardless of whether it's a valid finding or not, I'll resist it a little bit."

Kosciusko, a newly graduated computer graphics designer and former college swimmer whom Clary met at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, giggles softly in the back seat. "No, really?" she says, teasing.

Perry won Clary over, and Clary reaped the dividends almost immediately. The summer before his junior year in high school, he qualified for the junior world championships and won both IM events, plus bronze medals in the 200 backstroke and freestyle. But accomplishment stirred an old hornet's nest. Clary had gone by his stepfather's last name as long as he could recall, even in school, but his birth certificate -- and thus his passport -- still read Scott Tyler Flowers, so that's what had to be on the official sheets in international competition.

Tyler maintained an arm's-length relationship with his biological father, but says it was constantly strained by the older man's struggles with substance abuse and brushes with the law. The up-and-coming athlete was far closer to his grandparents and uncle on that side, and still is.

Bud and Deb Flowers have attended their grandson's meets since he began swimming, and they will be in Omaha next week. Deb says Tyler is assiduous about dropping in and keeping in touch. "If he never swam another stroke, it would all be the same to me," she said. "First and foremost, he's a good person who cares about people's feelings. He's always been steadfast that we're his grandparents. We're very fortunate."

As soon as Clary was 18, he went to court and had his name changed. "I didn't want to disassociate myself from anyone or break with my past," he says. "It was about doing right by my stepfather." Two years ago, he decided that for his own peace of mind, he needed to distance himself from his biological father. He had tried to maintain contact, but he says the last straw was a call with a request for money. Whatever sympathy Clary had left drained away. "My life is too good to have something this bad in it," he says. They haven't spoken since.

"Knowing Tyler and the way he processes things, this has given him an advantage," Stacy Clary says. "He's been able to look at both ends of the spectrum and see how poor choices and poor behavior can affect everyone around you. In Lonnie, he sees someone who gets up and works hard every day for his family, and has no problem saying 'I love you.' Tyler wishes he didn't have this ugliness in his life, but it's pushed him from a young age. He hates to lose and he's going to try harder to win."

[+] EnlargeRyan Lochte and Tyler Clary
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty ImagesTyler Clary, right, won two medals at last year's world championships, including a bronze medal in the 200 backstroke behind winner Ryan Lochte.

'Make sure you do it for yourself'

The year Clary changed his name marked the beginning of a bigger transition. He was recruited by several top schools and chose Michigan. He was named to the 2007 Pan American Games team and won a silver medal in the 200-meter backstroke, but Perry, who was supposed to accompany him, stayed home to deal with a cancer diagnosis. His condition deteriorated rapidly and he died less than a year later.

"The last phone call I had with him, he sounded pretty bad," Clary says. "I told him how my freshman year had been going and told him I loved him and that was it." Clary flew home for 24 hours to attend the funeral. Then-Michigan head coach Bob Bowman picked Clary up at the Detroit airport and told him he was quitting to return to Baltimore with his longtime pupil, Phelps.

All that change and loss reinforced something for the already self-reliant Clary: The person who cared most about his budding career was the person inside his swimsuit, and it was up to him to make sure he maximized his talent. That summer, he surprised even himself by finishing third in the 200 backstroke at the 2008 Olympic trials behind Lochte and a world-record swim by Aaron Peirsol.

Mike Bottom took over the Michigan program and Clary thrived during his next two years in Ann Arbor, breaking Phelps' American record in the NCAA-distance 400-yard IM and finishing second to Lochte in the 400-meter IM at the 2009 world championships. At the 2010 Pan-Pacific Championships, Clary was runner-up to Lochte in three events.

Urbanchek had stayed on the pool deck at Michigan as a coach emeritus. When he made it known he was leaving campus to go back to FAST, where he'd worked in the 1970s, Clary elected to forego his final season of eligibility and follow Urbanchek home to Southern California.

[+] EnlargeTyler Clary
Bonnie D. FordTyler Clary put his University of Michigan degree on hold to work with coach Jon Urbanchek in Southern California.

The slender, raspy-voiced, 75-year-old Urbanchek has been a good fit for Clary in this Olympic lead-up. Urbanchek absorbs Clary's near-constant banter in practice with equanimity. When Clary decided to cross-train by taking Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Urbanchek came and watched, occasionally cringing when he saw Clary's arm getting twisted. The coach worries aloud over Clary's zeal for driving fast cars, and in that eternal dialogue between older and younger men, Clary says he has to live life at his own pace.

"I let him make decisions. He's an interesting guy," Urbanchek says as Clary regards him impassively from across the table at Starbucks. "Sometimes, if you don't know him well, he comes off as a little bit cocky, but it's more of a confidence. I don't want to tame him. I didn't want to take away from that hunger, so sometimes I let him get away with a little bit of that bull----. That makes him tough. If you make him a pussycat, he'll be like the other 99 percent of people who are never gonna make it to the top.

"Any other decade, Tyler would have been one of the..." Urbanchek starts, then stops himself. He, of all people, knows Clary doesn't want to hear the Phelps/Lochte lament for the umpteenth time.

The coach changes the subject. "My very first job at FAST, 40 years ago, my first real good swimmer was also a 400 IMer," Urbanchek says, referring to USC's Rod Strachan. "And he ended up winning a gold medal with the world record at the Montreal Olympics, and I told Tyler it would be nice at the end of my career -- "

Clary grins. "No pressure," he says.

He means it.

"When I was on the podium at my first major world meet, it popped into my head, 'This is for Kevin,'" Clary says the next day. "Then I remembered what he told me: No matter how good you are and how far you go, make sure you do it for yourself. Neither he nor Jon would want me to do it for them."

Tyler ClaryMark Ralston/AFP/Getty ImagesTyler Clary plans to compete in four events at next week's U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha.

'I want to make the team and make my mark'

The garage of Clary's townhouse in Fullerton is strewn with tools and parts for an off-road racing vehicle he has designed -- drafting it with a CAD program on his desktop computer, then constructing a full-size model from carved-up cardboard Home Depot boxes, then sending away to a company for custom-cut parts. A shelf in the hallway is lined with miniature helicopters that he builds as "platforms for artificial intelligence," he explains. One-quarter of the living room is occupied by equipment Clary uses to compose and mix electronic music; he's particularly drawn to the dubstep style and books episodic gigs as a DJ, going by the name "Copacetic."

But Clary has at least one Luddite leaning. He walks out of his bathroom carrying a straight razor sheathed in a leather case and sets it down on the kitchen counter. "It's the right way to shave," he says firmly. "I keep mine scalpel-sharp. The way other razors are manufactured irritates your skin."

As he makes that declaration, Clary's clean-shaven jaw lifts with that hint of defiance that is an integral part of him. Without it, he might not have the wherewithal to take his mark with two of the greatest swimmers of all time and think he has a chance to knock off at least one of them.

Clary respects what Phelps and Lochte have accomplished, but he's not overly awed. He is friendly with, but not close to, Lochte. He is civil with, but distant from, Phelps, and views him as a resident of Earth rather than Valhalla, having seen Phelps and Bowman carping at each other for a full year of practices at Michigan. As the world focuses on Michael versus Ryan next week in Omaha, Clary has defined what he wants, and it isn't in relation to either man.

"Making the [Olympic] team and medaling will be a success for me," he says. "A lot of people just want to make the team. I don't see the point of making the team and then falling off. I want to make the team and make my mark."

Clary is not sure he'll compete after this summer. He plans to move to Ann Arbor in the fall to keep a promise to his mother and stepfather by re-enrolling in school and finishing up his degree in two or three semesters. But he's already past that in his head.

[+] EnlargeTyler Clary and girlfriend
Bonnie D. FordTyler Clary met girlfriend and former swimmer Caroline Kosciusko at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado.

His preferred career path would be in auto racing, either as a designer or a driver or both. So Clary brims with enthusiasm when he sits down in the grandstand outside the first turn on the course at the Toyota Grand Prix in Long Beach on a brilliantly sunny April Sunday. He watches, riveted, rooting for J.R. Hildebrand and his No. 4 car, as the drivers make their eardrum-shattering circuits.

"I want this to be my environment," Clary says after the race. "I want it so bad."

Kosciusko smiles up at him. "I can see you walking around with one of those big headphones and a microphone," she says.

They decide to stroll through the race expo in the nearby convention center on their way out and, by chance, spot a booth advertising the Skip Barber Racing School, a company that operates programs at multiple tracks around the country. Clary introduces himself to CEO Michael Culver and plunges into a serious discussion about the school's Indy Car Academy. Culver tells him he'd be a good candidate. Clary looks as if he might jump out of his skin with pleasure and paraglide out of the place.

Being mechanically minded helps Clary analyze the 400 IM, arguably the most grueling event in the sport. Even at the very top level, everyone who swims it has a slightly weaker leg; for Clary, it's the breaststroke, which comes third. Technical flaws can make the difference between win, place and show. When Clary is trying to make a stroke correction, he thinks "in angles and relations, like you would trying to tune a machine," he says.

"It's almost more natural for me to prepare for that event than a 200 back or fly or free," Clary says. "It kind of goes along with how my mind works. My mind's in any number of places at once. It's four controlled sprints. You can actually push yourself harder in each one of those than you would be able to just doing a 400 free, because you're switching up muscle groups every 100.

"I'm proud to be a 400 IMer. I think there's a significant macho factor there. It's an event for badass swimmers. Look at any Olympic champion in that event, and they're a badass swimmer."

Clary is toward the end of his taper now, swimming half what he'd do in a peak workout of 7,000 meters or more. He and Phelps raced the 400 IM at separate meets the first weekend of June when both were still in heavy training, and Clary was encouraged that he posted a faster time when he was broken down physically and sporting a mustache and goatee. He believes he has a vein of real gold that hasn't been mined yet. And he is very good at keeping all four wheels on the ground even when he's looking ahead and seeing nothing but sky.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.