By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Fresh off a strong showing in Austin, Tyler Clary spent the last week of January pursuing his other love, race car driving. This time, he was part of the Skip Barber Racing School IndyCar Academy. The London gold medalist won gold in the 200 back after missing out on the 400 IM at Olympic Trials. He talks about Michael Phelps’ amazing feat, race cars, and his own overall need for speed in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
Photos courtesy of INDYCAR and Getty Images
1. This racing thing is going well?
Tyler: Yeah, it really is becoming what I was hoping it would become – and quicker than I thought it would.
2. What was this most recent experience?
Tyler: Last weekend was the IndyCar shootout. Basically, it was a hand-selected group of people who share exceptional on-track performance and are capable of making the next step. I heard something like 10,000 wanted in at Skip Barber; only 33 got selected, and I was one of those 33. Honestly, I was just excited to be there.
3. What was it like?
Tyler: It was incredible. The first thing it let me do was gauge the experience level of everybody there, and I was at the lower end. I ended up finishing 13th out of 33, but I beat a lot of people who had a lot more experience than I did. I got a lot of encouraging feedback from the instructors. They asked my goals for auto racing and two specifically said they were completely onboard with helping me do whatever I needed to get there.
4. And you got to see how others with the dream are – both talent-wise, and mentally, right?
Tyler: Oh yeah, I mean, the interesting thing was seeing some of those other guys and seeing how they function in that kind of situation.
5. Would you rather race in NASCAR or open-wheel like IndyCar?
Tyler: To be completely honest, put me in a racecar and I will be happy. All are amazing choices. If I had to pick just one, I would be in an open-wheel car. They are purebred and purpose built race cars. The capability those cars have around the track is unparalleled. But I wouldn’t mind a stock car either.
6. Are they completely different disciplines?
Tyler: IndyCar and NASCAR have a few similarities but they have a lot of differences. NASCAR is mostly on ovals ,and IndyCar is just the opposite. The interesting thing about the two is they have to run basically the same chassis, though there are subtle differences on setup, tire setup, pit strategy and a lot of other things.
7. But the racing itself seems a lot different, right?
Tyler: Absolutely. With everything I just said, the reality is that racing in a stock car is much more physical – like they say, “rubbing is racing.” If you do that in Indycar, you end up on your lid. I do like the physicality of NASCAR, but the sheer speed of open wheel is amazing
8. Going back to swimming, that picture from you winning the gold is so awestruck, what was that like?
Tyler: The expression I have on my face after the race is pure shock. I knew going into finals that I would medal. All throughout the race I had no idea I would be touching first. I could see myself passing Ryan (Lochte), or at least getting even with him in the last 10 meters, but I wasn’t absolutely sure. I didn’t know where Ryosuke Irie (who won silver) was either. I knew I was in the running for a medal, but it was a great surprise to win gold.
9. When you saw “1” by your name, how did you feel?
Tyler: When I saw that I had won, let alone broken the Olympic record, it blew me away. It was complete redemption for what I considered a lackluster Olympic Trials. And then to have all sorts of pressure with the nonsense that went on outside the pool in the media, and just being on the Olympic team…it was so great to have the 200 fly and 200 back go so well. I was able to show not just myself, but everyone that I can handle myself at the highest level under pressure. That, more than anything, is the most satisfying.
10. That time in the 200 back still sticks in your mind, doesn’t it?
Tyler: It’s crazy to think my time would have won in 2008; that is what blew me away more than anything.
11. You were so quiet afterward, what was up with that?
Tyler: I was completely speechless. Listen, over the years, you have gotten to know me well, and you know that’s a hard thing to do! All the hype, all that had gone on behind the swim, and then that happens – you have to take time to think it all through to make sense of it. It was even crazier after the awards ceremony, because we were doing something with NBC so they shuffled me upstairs, and Aaron Peirsol was standing there – the king of backstroke came over and congratulated me. He said, “Even six months from now, it won’t sink in what you have done.” And it hasn’t. It’s still strange for people to refer to me as an Olympic champion and record holder. That made the moment even more special, seeing Aaron. After that, I saw my parents, and almost broke down after three or four such intense months, so I just let it all go, let it all out.
12. That whole U.S. team was a bunch of beasts performance wise, weren’t they?
Tyler: Absolutely. Look at every single event we had. It was like we were this unstoppable force. The training camps were just ridiculous! I would look left and right at the lane I was in, and I’d see the 100 backstroke world record holder (Grevers) on one side of me, to the right is the greatest Olympian of all time (Michael Phelps), and on the other side of him, the second greatest Olympian of all time (Lochte) and that was just in practice! You never know who in a given workout was going to pull out some ridiculous swim, and it was amazing. I did a couple of sets with Ryan, and the sets he was pulling out were just incredible. I would think, “How am I going to compete with this guy?”
13. How did you?
Tyler: He just trains a lot faster than I do – it is really impressive to watch, especially up close. He’s an incredible swimmer. Ryan is amazing.
14. What was it like seeing Michael be so dominant again?
Tyler: Michael proves year in and year out, not just at the Olympics, that he can do things nobody ever thought he could ever do – and then he does them again and again. That being said, we all knew he would have an incredible Olympics; this is not a guy who is going to roll over for his last Olympics In the 400 IM, people wondered what happened, but that was an event he admitted he hadn’t trained specifically for, and he’s still fourth best in the world, just a tick from medaling. So to see him finish near the top in an event he hadn’t added until late is still amazing. After that, when people started talking about how he did, a lot of us were saying, “Just wait, with the events he has left, he’s going to bring it like you can’t imagine.” The fact that he’s been able to do what he’s done in such a long career is unreal, and London should make everyone respect his talent even more. No one will ever be able to take away the fact that he is the greatest and most decorated Olympian of all time.
15. Got to see you at Golden Goggles, and from what I understand during conversations with people who know about such things, your tux was among the most well-received – you have fashion sense?
Tyler: I’ve always believed, as far as fashion goes, in being subtle but very sleek. It would take quite an eye to pick out what I wear. I don’t have Ryan’s sense of style, which is kind of out there yet still in your face. Think of it this way, Ryan’s the orange Lamborghini, and I am the black Mercedes SLS.
16. When the team was introduced at Golden Goggles, you looked really happy – how did that feel?
Tyler: It was a lot of fun. It was nice to be back with the team. It brought back those feelings of the butterflies in your stomach, about how much fun it was everywhere I went with these amazing people, and just the joy of being able to have them as friends. We have done a great job of keeping in touch, and reliving those moments is just a great feeling.
17. How could the group swim so fast while filming a video and laughing all the time?
Tyler: The team was made up of great swimmers, but also great people. Now, keep in mind like I said, at any time you had someone in the pool who was capable of doing something jaw-dropping. I remember someone hoping to make an impression in the 4 x 200 relay dropping a low 1:48 in camp – are you kidding me? That’s insane. Everybody there had a common goal: Be your best for the teammate next to you, because you knew they would be their best. Listen, they were tough workouts – I tend to train like a brick – but there were always people there keeping everyone up, pushing each other and keeping people on track. It was a life-changing experience for as far as being on a team goes.
18. Your first Games – did it live up to what you expected, or had Worlds prepared you for it?
Tyler: Being on a World Championship team is something like it, but there is just so much more hype for the Olympics. Really, I had no clue what I was in for. The level of everything was amplified by a million. It was so cool, and everyone just became part of this Team USA mentality. Even the local police department in Vichy, when we would go from the hotel to the pool, we actually had a police escort for every single one of our vans. They’d go out ahead and stop traffic. I was like, “Man, when did we request this?” And the answer was, we did not, they volunteered to do it for us. That was so cool. It was kind of a stealthy thing where we were going, and yet when they sold tickets to watch three of our workouts, there were thousands of people there, some of whom drove eight hours, just to watch us practice!
19. We talk a lot about the men’s team, but that women’s team – Beisel, Franklin, Ledecky, Schmitty, etc. – amazing, aren’t they?
Tyler: Aside from their talents in the pool, they are incredible swimmers – they are all really fun to be around. I will focus on a few just to keep it short. Listen, Katie Ledecky was incredible. She is literally still just a kid, but mature beyond her years. The others in that group are so freaking fun to hang out with; I would go back and forth with those three all day, and they’d dish it right back. Missy isn’t 18 yet (until May) so I had to get in all my jokes about her being a child. Beisel is loud and fun to joke with. Schmitty has that laid back really goofy humor that everyone loves. Back to Katie for a second: Training with her was like nothing else. I would really be hurting, and she’d go flying by. I’d think, “How am I supposed to compete with this?” Just watching Katie and Jon (Urbanchek) work together, I had a feeling something special was going to happen, because I have worked with Jon a long time, so I can tell when he is getting excited about something. I could see his ears start to turn, and could tell he was really excited about what Katie was getting ready to do. I had a feeling she was about to pull something big. In London, it was just incredible to watch her take off, especially the first half of her race, going out so fast. All of us were standing together watching her race, and we saw the point when she shifted and was just going off sheer will; her body had given all it had, yet she still figured out a way to keep going. When you see someone swim a long distance event like that and push past all they have to give – she gave that every ounce she had in her body – it makes you respect them so much. We were all so motivated by that.
20. So race cars aside, you have water plans hopefully for Rio in 2016?
Tyler: The plan right now is to swim through 2016, definitely. This last year has taught me a lot. I can do more than I thought possible in swimming. Every expectation I had for the Olympics didn’t mean a thing – the experience itself blew away my expectations. In that short period of time in London, I proved to everyone, including myself, what I am capable of. I think that helped me get back into shape fast for Austin. It’s also helped me in the race cars and in life, because I am now more confident in my ability to pick things up, do them well, and improve. So I am really excited to see how this plays out in the next 3½ or four years.