Tyler the Truth Teller

by Casey Barrett

Tyler Clary calls out Phelps: Makes fair points, assures destruction… 

Someone was bound to say it sooner or later. May as well have been the guy with the front row seat. Did you see what Tyler Clary had to say about Michael Phelps yesterday? It came out in the not-exactly-national Press-Enterprise, billed as the source of news and information in Inland Southern California… Here’s the column by Jim Alexander. It might be the source in the Valley, but safe to say in the swim universe, this site just expanded its reach. Because apparently Tyler Clary feels like playing with the piranha…

You can predict the outcry. It’s already coming in. How dare he! cries the young swim fan… He’s just jealous! cries the old swim mom… He’s the new Mike Cavic! says the swim site… Thanks for the extra ratings boost! smiles the TV network… Let’s face it, that 200 fly in London wasn’t much of a story, was it? Phelps already proved he can win that one with his goggles filled with water in Beijing. This event was a gimmie gold for the great one. But now there’s more, courtesy of the call-it-like-he-sees-it Mr. Clary.

(The story around the 200 fly in London was bound to go something like this: (Cue Gladiator soundtrack) This is the event where it all started, back in the year 2000, when a pubescent Michael Phelps stroked to a 5th place finish in Sydney… It was his one and only Olympic race that did not end on a podium… Actually, that’s rather fine, I can hear Dan Hicks voicing it, but that’s besides the point…)

Here’s what Tyler Clary had to say of his time training with Phelps at Michigan:

“I saw a real lack of preparation (from) him. 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.”

Check the dates in question and you’ll see that this is even more inflammatory than it sounds. It’s royally fucking with the whole Michael Mythology. This isn’t the same old refrain of Phelps-didn’t-do-shit-after-Beijing. Phelps has been admitting as much ever since his party hearty Poker & More tour of ’08 and ’09. No, that’s old news. We get that, and more power to him for that debauched and well earned victory lap. But Phelps had already left Michigan by then. Clary is talking about before Beijing.

Tyler Clary got to Ann Arbor in the fall of 2007 – when Phelps was reputably in full 8 Gold or Bust focus mode. Except Clary claims that wasn’t really the case. He was a freshman back then, and not yet a superstar. He was a comer, no question; at the ’08 men’s NCAA’s, Clary won consols in the 400 IM and the 500 free. He swam plenty fast (3:44.1 / 4:16.8), but he wasn’t even in the big final in his individual events. He was a quiet freshman looking on at the king. And by his own eye-witness estimation, at the most pivotal legend making period of all, the king wasn’t putting in the work.

I’ll be honest – it’s not the first time I’ve heard this. It might be the first eye-witness account to be picked up by a reporter in the weeks before an Olympics, but it’s hardly the first eye-witness account to circulate through the swimming world. These stories are out there, being spread by former teammates without apology or secret. The media gospel of MP and the daily facts of training life appear to have a few discrepancies. Some fact-checking might be required.

But do those facts really matter? They don’t change the number of gold medals he’s won. They will never change the fact that what Phelps did in Beijing was the single greatest performance in Olympic history. Probably for all time. Hell, the charge that he didn’t put in the work of others might make it even more impressive!

Nonetheless, the grumbling has been out there for a long time, well before Beijing. There is no disputing the fact that Phelps did indeed put in the work when he was a kid, all the way through his teenage years. That much we can swear to a jury. But since Athens? Yes, Athens, not Beijing… Those many years since Greece appear to be up for dispute.

Of course, this raises the question of the verboten T-word. Talent, that cruel bitch we wish we could discount, wish we could minimize and prove how it’s all really fair in the end. It’s not. It’s no more fair than a six foot nothing no-ups gym rat willing to do whatever it takes to play forward for the Miami Heat. Sorry, kid, Lebron doesn’t need to work as hard as you either, whatever he says about his off season routine.

Seeing Tyler Clary’s comments, I found myself nodding in solidarity. I used to be you, young Tyler. A masochistic give-me-anything practice fiend whose best events were also the 200 fly and 400 IM. And like you, I used to be bitter as hell at those I deemed to have more talent and a lesser work ethic. (Nice guy though he was, I’ll still probably never forgive former teammate Lars Frolander at SMU – an NCAA Swimmer of the Year and eventual Olympic champion in the 100 fly in Sydney. Never saw the guy swim more than 25 yards straight of butterfly; never saw him make more than four workouts a week. Alas…)

Tyler, here’s some free advice from beyond the competitive grave: You will someday realize how foolish you sound with all that talk about being the “blue collar worker” and not the talented one. Tyler, you’re more gifted than I ever was, more talented than all but a tiny few swimmers who ever lived. That is true regardless of how hard you might work. You’re going to wind up on an Olympic podium in a few weeks. Your own talents are absolutely other worldly. I can assure you that countless others out there are working just as hard as you are, and they will never ever sniff an Olympic berth.

Ah, screw all that retired perspective, I’m with you. Watching a once-in-a-century talent day in and day out like that, a guy who just gets the water more than any human ever has… That will get to you. It sucks.

But when you step on the blocks for the 200 fly in London, you can’t do a damn thing about it.