Having swum in Michael Phelps shadow for most of his career, Tyler Clary finally made his first Olympics — and promptly dissed the guy who is headed to his fourth.
Clary, 23, of Riverside, Calif., shocked the swimming world Tuesday, when a columnist for a California newspaper quoted him as saying the Baltimore swimmer with a record 14 gold medals to his name doesn't work as hard as he does.
"I think the things he could have done if he'd worked as hard as I do would have been even more incredible than what he has pulled off," Clary said to Jim Alexander of The Press-Enterprise .
The remarks caused an instant ruckus online and at University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where Phelps, Clary and the rest of the recently picked U.S. Olympic swim team is training for the Games that begin in 2 1/2 weeks.
Phelps famously uses competitors' verbal slights as motivation even as he refuses to engage in trash talking himself. Tuesday was no different.
"Michael is focused on his preparation for London," his coach Bob Bowman said from Knoxville. "His performance record over his career speaks for itself."
By Tuesday afternoon, Clary had apologized on his Twitter account, saying he was honored to swim alongside "the best swimmer in history" and concluding, "I'm sorry @MichaelPhelps."
Clary’s coach, Jon Urbanchek, said he was “very shocked” by the swimmer’s remarks. Urbanchek, who is close to Phelps as well, said Clary told him “everything was taken out of context.” Still, Urbanchek faulted Clary for leveling unfair criticism at the swimmer he considers the greatest ever.
“It wasn’t called for, and the timing — this should not be the news going into the Olympics,” said Urbanchek, the former coach at the University of Michigan where both Clary and Phelps have trained in the past. “I hope the two boys will sit down and talk about it. I know Michael is a little bit upset.”
If he is, it could be because Phelps takes great pride in his capacity for work. He famously swam every day from the time he was 13 to 18, making his first two Olympic teams, in 2000 and 2004. While he has acknowledged losing his passion for swimming after the exhilarating but exhausting 2008 Games, he has since resumed the kind of intense training that allowed him to qualify for a fourth Olympics at the age of 27.
But Clary characterized Phelps as practically a slacker, saying it was a “shame” that he didn’t have to work as hard as others and took his talent for granted.
“You see it a lot in sports and it’s always the same story. Reporters come to them and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, I work so hard, I have all these goals … blah blah blah,’” Clary said in the Press-Enterprise column. “You go and actually watch any of those people for just one workout, without them knowing you’re there. All it takes is one workout, and you can easily see it’s a whole difference as far as work ethic goes.”
It’s hard to discern what period of time Clary is referring to in his remarks, although in context they seem to refer to the several years that the two swimmers trained together in Michigan. Phelps swam there in the years leading up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, having followed Bowman there when he took over for Urbanchek.
“I saw a real lack of preparation (from) him,” Clary said. “Basically, he was a swimmer that didn’t want to be there. They can talk about all of these goals and plans and preparation they have. I saw it. I know. It’s different. And I saw somebody that has basically been asking to get beat for the longest time.”
Clary seemed to indicate that he would be the swimmer to best Phelps.
“The fact that I know I work harder than he does makes me appreciate every little goal and every little gain that I make,” Clary said to The Press-Enterprise . “And the day that it happens, when I finally beat him, is going to be a huge deal in my mind, because it would be complete satisfaction.”
In reality, though, Phelps has generally beaten Clary over the years. Clary has chafed a bit at being considered No. 3 , after Phelps and his closest rival, Ryan Lochte, something that seems a particularly cruel fate at Olympic qualifying trials such as the ones that concluded last week in Omaha — in most events, only the top two finishers make the team.
The resentment seemed to bubble up before the trials got underway, when Clary told reporters that he said Phelps was a “distant” person. Clary then predicted, incorrectly as it turned out, that Phelps wouldn’t try to qualify in the grueling 400-meter individual medley because he knew the U.S. would do fine in it without him — the implication being that Lochte and Clary would be the ones to swim the event for the U.S. in London.
Instead, he came in third, to Lochte and Phelps. Clary would make the team, though, coming in second to Lochte in the 200 backstroke and to Phelps in the 200- butterfly.
Phelps seemed to strike a generous note after that race, smiling, shaking Clary’s hand and making a point of praising him and calling him “a hard worker,” coincidentally enough.
“He was ready and he wanted to step up,” Phelps said. “He obviously finished the race really strong. It's cool to see somebody be excited after a race. I said to him when I got out, it's pretty cool to make your first one. He goes, you have no idea how good this feels.”
Now, however, as the U.S. team trains first in Tennessee and then in France for the Games, the old adage of actions speaking louder than words seems to apply.
“Let your swimming do the talking,” Urbanchek said. “That’s how Michael handles it.”