Commentary

Tyler Clary finally breaks through

Updated: August 3, 2012, 10:46 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

LONDON -- It's counterintuitive to regard a wall as a goal and not an obstacle, but swimmers learn to do that. Some need to repeat the drill more than others.

Over and over for the past couple of years, Tyler Clary has extended his fingertips toward the touch pad at the end of his lane believing he could get there first. Sometimes he knew he had been beaten before he arrived. Sometimes he had to wipe the water from his eyes and squint at the digital display to find out. At major meets, the names above his most often were those of Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.

Second. Third. Touched out. Soundly beaten. So close. So far. So tired of being in the top three, yet absent from the conversation. That kind of fatigue can be far more wearing than the kind caused by aching muscles and burning lungs, but Clary kept striving to look in front of him and not to either side at the two best swimmers of his or any other generation.

[+] EnlargeTyler Clary
Adam Pretty/Getty ImagesTyler Clary's win in the 200-meter backstroke Thursday night gave him his first career Olympic gold medal.

Phelps wasn't in the water for Thursday night's 200-meter backstroke. But Lochte -- the defending Olympic and world champion in the event -- was, in an adjacent lane. Clary scripted his race not just based on the splits he wanted, but with a visual image of where he would come off the last turn in relation to Lochte's body -- his head parallel with Lochte's midsection, poised to sprint past him.

And that was roughly where they were, separated by just .12 of a second. A couple of lanes over, Japan's Ryosuke Irie was charging hard.

"I knew it was going to take something extraordinary to get by them in the last 20 meters or so," Clary said. He surged forward, passing Lochte and keeping Irie at bay. He hit the wall and punched through it at the same time.

Clary won in an Olympic-record time of 1 minute, 53.41 seconds, bettering the time Lochte clocked in Beijing four years ago and inserting himself into the great conga line of American backstrokers who haven't lost the event or the 100-meter edition for the past five Summer Games. He remains many medals away from Phelps and Lochte statistically, but at 23 and already committed to another Olympic cycle, he is developing into the kind of challenger to Lochte that Lochte was to Phelps.

No elite athlete wants to be pitied because he has been born under the wrong star, and Clary is no exception. The shadow cast by Phelps and Lochte just strengthened Clary's resolve to emerge into his own sunlit patch. "That's just something that always kept me clawing for more," Clary said. "It's tough to swallow sometimes, but it makes moments like these that much more sweet."

People close to him know this is true. His mother, Stacy, raised him for the first few years by herself and saw him pushing relentlessly to be the youngest and fastest and smartest to do everything. His stepfather, Lonnie, came home from work one day to find his girlfriend's little boy on the doorstep asking whether he could call him Dad because in his mind, that's what was right.

The widely respected, charmingly congenial former University of Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek, Clary's coach at the Fullerton Aquatics Swim Team, played on Clary's ambition, telling the swimmer he'd like to retire with another Olympic champion in his stable 36 years after his first. Clary was also propelled by the memory of his late club coach Kevin Perry, who was the first to spot and nurture his talent but died of cancer before he could see Clary reach his potential. When Clary saw his own name in lights at the top of the marquee, he pointed skyward.

Thursday's race is one of the only things that has gone according to plan for Clary in the past six weeks. His focus leading into the U.S. Olympic trials was the 400 individual medley, the strongman's gut check in which he had won two world championship silver medals.

Phelps appeared ready to abdicate his Olympic throne in that event, then changed his mind. Clary's resolve didn't waver, but just days before the U.S. trials opened with the 400 IM, he came down with a viral infection and finished third, leaving open the question of whether he would have qualified for the team if he'd been healthy or if he could have done better than Phelps' fourth-place finish here in London. Lochte won the event at both trials and the Olympics.

Clary proceeded to make the U.S. team a few days later in the event he least expected -- the 200 butterfly -- and then joined Lochte in the 200 back.

In the intermission between trials and Olympic training camp in France, Clary granted an interview to his hometown Riverside, Calif., newspaper in which he made ill-advised remarks about Phelps' work ethic during their Ann Arbor days. The two ex-Michigan training partners have had a distant relationship at best, but it was -- as Clary quickly realized -- bad form to sound critical given Phelps' sensational résumé and the fact that they were teammates.

He spent a mostly sleepless night before knocking on Phelps' door, which might have been a more difficult act than completing any training set, and apologized personally and publicly. That ended the affair as far as U.S. Olympic men's head coach Gregg Troy was concerned.

"They're all big boys," Troy said before the swimming competition started in London. "The guys' team is pretty close. We talked about it a little bit and moved on. If we don't have highly aggressive guys, we've got the wrong guys here." Phelps told reporters he would do his talking in the water and has subsequently backed that up with his performance.

Clary has said nothing but gracious things since arriving here, and an emotional Stacy Clary said Thursday night that it has been hard to hear people who don't know her son hammer him. After his race, when he saw his family and could finally drop his guard, he broke down.

This fall, Clary will head back to Michigan to keep the promise he made to his parents to finish his education. He is also going to put a career in auto racing -- his dry-land passion -- on hold indefinitely.

"The success I've had here is making me want to launch into the next four years headlong," he said. "I'm using it as a stepping stone for Rio. I'm on cloud nine, and I want more of this."

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