OMAHA, Neb. -- Facing a monster bottleneck, Tyler Clary couldn't apply quite enough pressure Monday night to pop the cork and celebrate.
After the finish of the 400-meter individual medley at the U.S. Olympic trials, Clary shook hands across the lane lines with the two best swimmers in the world, pulled himself out of the pool, looked up into the stands at his mother and stepfather, Stacy and Lonnie, and shrugged ruefully.
What can you do, indeed? Clary touched the wall in an all-too-familiar position. His performance in the most punishing event in swimming would have put him on any other Olympic team in the world, but he couldn't top reigning world champion Ryan Lochte or defending two-time Olympic champion Michael Phelps.
If there was any question that this race was a three-man game of musical chairs, it was erased by the fact that the fourth-place finisher, Andrew Gemmell, was more than six seconds slower than Clary. Monday night's times by Lochte, Phelps and Clary were also the three best in the event this year.
Stacy Clary reacted with a mother's understandable compassion: "I don't know how to make it better for him." Tyler Clary's time of 4 minutes, 9.92 seconds was not a personal best, but Stacy and her husband said they thought it was exceptional, especially because Tyler has been coping with congestion from a virus for the past few days. "When he overtook Michael in the backstroke, I thought he had a shot," she said.
"It's so hard for him to have given up so much, but knowing Tyler, he'd rather go down swinging in the 400 IM," than to have conceded it, she said.
Tyler Clary, the world silver medalist in the 400 IM behind Lochte in 2009 and 2011, has been focused on training for the event.
His best chance to make the U.S. team now is likely in the 200 backstroke, in which he is a world championships bronze medalist. Preliminary heats and semifinals are slated for Friday. Clary also is entered in Wednesday's 200 butterfly. Phelps and Lochte are entered in both events; Clary is seeded second to Phelps in the 200 fly and Lochte in the 200 back.
Clary originally planned to race the 200 freestyle in a bid to make the six-man relay pool, but his coach at the Fullerton Aquatics Sports Team club, Jon Urbanchek, said they mutually agreed to scratch him from the event and concentrate on his two specialties.
"I'm happy with what he did," said Urbanchek, who bonded with Clary as coach emeritus at the University of Michigan and was the main reason the 23-year-old Clary, who grew up in Riverside, Calif., opted to forego his last season of college eligibility and move back home to train. "Time means nothing in this meet. He overswam the first 200 meters because he knows his weakness is breaststroke, and it cost him in the last 50. Either you go for it or you go with the flow."
Clary was third after the opening butterfly leg but seized the lead in the first 50 meters of backstroke and held it narrowly at the halfway point. During the breaststroke leg, in an apt metaphor, flames leaped out of the poolside pyrotechnical display in an inadvertent equipment malfunction at just about the same time Clary began losing ground to both men. Still, he and Phelps made the turn for the last 50 meters of freestyle separated by just .28 seconds before Clary faded, finishing two seconds out of the money.
Urbanchek said Clary was angry and upset after the race, and the coach encouraged him to "get out of here" without speaking to the media. The coach then repeated what he's said many times before: Clary deserves credit for racing the event, period.
"He's willing to take on two of the best swimmers on the entire planet," Urbanchek said.
For stretches of the past two seasons, however, it looked as if Clary wouldn't have to. Phelps swore off the 400 IM after repeating as Olympic champion at the 2008 Beijing Games but raced it several times this season and edged Clary at the Indianapolis Grand Prix in March.
Doubts persisted that Phelps would race the event here, especially after he turned in a subpar time at a meet in Austin, Texas, earlier this month. But Phelps told reporters after Monday morning's prelims that he decided to swim the 400 IM "a while ago" and later added that the Austin race cemented his conviction rather than eroding his confidence because he didn't want a poor race as curtain call in what was once a signature event.
It will be of little consolation to Clary that Phelps took him very seriously and implied he knew it was a race for second. The two men, who overlapped as teammates for one year at Michigan, were in adjacent lanes. "I know how Tyler swims that race, and he is a strong front-half swimmer, so I just tried to put myself into a good position for the first 200," Phelps said.
After the race, Lochte's club coach, the University of Florida's Gregg Troy, was asked whether he felt any sympathy for the position in which Clary finds himself.
"We've been on the other side of that," said Troy, who will serve as the U.S. men's coach in London. "That's competition."