OMAHA, Neb. -- Second is as good as first at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, and that meant Tyler Clary, blocked for so long in the finishing straight by two of the best swimmers in history, got to see the checkered flag at last.
He is a 2012 Olympian in the 200-meter butterfly -- the event with the longest odds for him of the three he intended to race this week. Then again, Clary should be used to that. He has been battling long odds ever since he began racing head-to-head against Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
Watery karma works in strange ways. Clary's butterfly is excellent, but he has never medaled in the stroke at a major international meet. He is normally a swimmer who accelerates ahead of the field and tries to hold on in the back half. A viral infection he contracted a week ago sapped him for a few days and likely torpedoed his chance of breaking through the Phelps-Lochte barricade in his favorite event, the 400 individual medley, but Clary was still crushed when he finished third in the event Monday.
Thursday night in the 200 fly, Clary was in fourth place at the first, second and third turns. Phelps, the two-time defending Olympic champion in the event, forged into the lead at the 150-meter mark with his distinctive rocket-launcher of a stroke. Lochte was not in the pool, but there were still two men between Clary and his heart's desire.
"I wasn't sensing anyone else dropping off, so I was thinking to myself, 'Oh man, am I even gonna make the top three?'" Clary said.
In the stands, his mother, Stacy, went into "mom mode," trying to imagine how she would comfort him.
"I was thinking damage control," she said. "How am I going to get him through to tomorrow morning? He's going to re-swim this in his mind."
Improbably, Clary "pumped out some fast underwater kicks" off the last turn, he said, and began gaining on Davis Tarwater and Bobby Bollier. He caught Tarwater first and Bollier in the last few meters as the crowd raised the roof. When Clary looked up and saw the No. 2 next to his time -- 1:55.12, 1.47 seconds off Phelps' pace -- he leaned back and punched his fists skyward, then put his hands on his head in joyous disbelief.
"It sounds so cliché, but you really have to experience it to understand it," Clary said of his long, laborious path to that last wall. "It's the biggest endorphin rush you could ever experience, the biggest explosion of serotonin in your head. I'm on cloud nine right now."
Clary will be formally named to the Olympic team in a podium ceremony Friday. Second-place finishers aren't officially stamped until the number of swimmers racing multiple events shakes out, but that math is done and he's in the clear. And that, in turn, relieves the pressure on Clary in Friday's preliminary heats of the 200 backstroke -- a bronze medal event for him at last year's world championships -- where he'll be up against Lochte again.
"Now I know I'm on the team, and I can focus on all the little things," Clary said.
After the finish, Stacy Clary went into a different gear of mom mode and sprinted down the steps to hug her son. "I thought she was about to have a heart attack," Tyler said. "I don't think I've ever seen her run that fast in my life."
When she went back to her seat, her cell phone wouldn't work, so she borrowed one from Natalie Coughlin's mother in the row ahead of her and called her husband, Lonnie, who had to go back to work earlier this week. He cried at the news, and would have loved to be at the pool. More important to Tyler is his stepfather has been present for him in every way since he was a preschooler.
In a way, it was fitting that mom and son had a moment, just the two of them. Stacy was 23 when she had Tyler, the same age he is now, and raised him alone with the support of grandparents on both sides for the first few years. His paternal grandparents, Bud and Deb Flowers, were screeching their approval from the upper level of the CenturyLink Center, along with his girlfriend, Caroline Kosciusko, who had the prescience to go out and shop for Olympic-themed clothes in the afternoon.
The mother and child reunion brought another roar of approval from the 11,849 in attendance. "To have somebody get behind your son is very emotional," Stacy said. "There's very few of us who win at everything, but I think everybody understands what it's like -- and I don't mean this in a bad way -- to come up short."