Ahead of His Time
April 9, 2010
By Larry Watts
When it came down to the final decision, it really wasn't a tough one to make for Tyler Clary.
So when the University of Michigan junior jumped in the Manchester, England pool last December and blazed to an American record of 4:02.02 while winning the 400-meter individual medley during the Duel in the Pool, he knew the possible outcome. He chose country over individual glory even though his country, most notably USA Swimming and the U.S. Olympic Committee, would not recognize the mark.
Clary's decision to wear the controversial techno suit was against the rules of his country's governing bodies. However, it was not against the rules of FINA, the sport's governing body in world competition.
"Swimmers from all the other countries (Great Britain, Italy and Germany) were wearing the suits and we would have been at a disadvantage," says the six-time All-American and NCAA defending champion in both the 400-yard IM and 200-yard backstroke. "I feel like we were being punished by the indecisiveness of some people.
"We weren't swimming for records, we were swimming for our country. Besides, records are made to be broken, but titles last forever."
If anything, the Duel in the Pool, where he also took third in the 200 IM and fourth in the 200 butterfly, proved Clary is rounding back into top form after a series of mishaps to start the season.
"It all started because of my own stupidity," he says. "Every year, before the freshmen report, we go on a team trip, where we basically act like idiots for three or four days. I was being a little more idiotic than usual and we decided to play a game of touch football, but because I'm overly competitive, it turned out to be tackle and I separated my AC (shoulder) joint.
"Luckily, I didn't need surgery, but it did put me out of action for a couple of weeks. But once that came around, I started feeling a pain in my forearm and it trickled down to my fingers, like I was placing it on a searing, hot pan. Our trainer figured out I had a constricted ulnar nerve in my elbow, so I had to lay off training again."
No sooner was Clary back in the pool than he contacted the swine flu virus.
"So I went from a bad shoulder to a bad elbow to a 105-degree temperature," he says. "I'm hoping I have my sickness and injuries out of the way for the next three or four years. I am starting to feel like myself again and I think this year will be another good one."
It's hard to imagine a better one than the one he just had. In addition to the 400 IM and 200 back titles, the Big Ten Swimmer of the Year also took second in the 200 IM and was part of the fourth place 800 and sixth place 400 freestyle relay teams at the NCAA Championships. His winning time of 1:37.58 in the 200 back was an NCAA record and his time of 3:35.98 in the 400 IM was an American record.
During the long course season last summer, his mother finally convinced him to enter the 200-meter butterfly for a meet in Montreal.
"She had been after me to do it for a long time, telling me what a beautiful stroke I had, and I finally caved in," the Riverside, Calif. native says. "I wound up posting a time I didn't think I could do, so I guess that forced me to enter the butterfly at the World Championship Trials."
With the top two finishers earning bids to the World Championships in Rome, Clary finished a close second to a guy by the name of Michael Phelps, who has been working as a volunteer coach with the Wolverine Swim Club after winning 14 Olympic gold medals. Clary finished third in the 200 back, but his disappointment was overcome by the fact he took second in the 200 fly.
At the World Championships, Clary again finished second to Phelps in the 400 IM and took fifth in the 200 fly.
"I was having a little trouble in the fly because I kept blowing out the back of my suit and I had to keep changing suits," he says. "But considering I was seeded eighth in the fly for the finals and third in the 400 IM, I was real happy with my performances."
Last November, Clary's performances during the year earned him an invite to the prestigious Golden Goggles, a gala event in Los Angeles honoring the top U.S. amateur swimmers. During the awards ceremony, he was recognized as the Breakout Athlete of the Year.
"I will absolutely tell you, I have never been so nervous," he says. "My heart rate was higher than after I competed in the 400 IM in Rome and I was shaking like you wouldn't believe. I knew I was in the running with a couple of others for the award, but in the end, weirder things have happened."
Away from the pool, Clary has gotten very involved in robotics, specifically working with UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). He is currently doing an independent study where he is working on a patrol algorithm that controls model helicopters.
"Basically, what those helicopters will do is patrol a base area and watch for intruders," says Clary, who hopes to work for the military some day. "Right now I'm trying to get an object to move in a patrol-like pattern and eventually adapt it to larger scale helicopters. The one I have has a six-foot rotor stand.
"The lab I work in has eight high resolution cameras 15 feet off the ground, with infrared lights pointing downward to the center of the room. I can take the measurement of what the helicopter is dong by placing five or six markers in separate spots. The positional measurements would be within half a millimeter and the rotational measurements will have accuracy within one degree. You can control the helicopter and get it to do most anything based on the algorithm and those measurements."
Robots have also played a key role in new training technology being used for the swimmers by head coach Mike Bottom. Working with Dr. Guy Meadows, the director of programs for the Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering program and College of Engineering, underwater cameras were designed to follow the swimmers below the water and alongside them. The feed from the cameras is fed to two TiVo systems so the swimmers and their coaches can immediately analyze their strokes.
"Mike wants us to be the most technology-advanced swim team in the country, if not the world," Clary says. "At the start of the year, we would take video and then post it on a web site, which is good, but when you're trying to change your stroke and make it more efficient, it's better to have that feed right then and there because it's easier to make changes.
"I can already feel differences in my stroke. I'm feeling the power pulls at certain points and overall my stroke feels more dynamically sound. These advancements are really going to help us hit our peak."
This collegiate season is concerned, Clary won another national championship in the 400 IM.
"I (wasn't) counting out records, but I'm not expecting them," he says. "I will be gunning for the records next year (as a senior).
"Then on the international level, I just want to keep improving because that's where all the prestige is. I want to make the Pan Pac team, qualify for the World Championships and, hopefully, it will all culminate in a 2012 run to the Olympics.
"Not to take anything away from what I want to do at Michigan, but my top priority has been to perform at the international level," he added. "One of the things you always hear around here is to spread the gospel about Michigan swimming and there's no better place to do it than on the world stage."
Back at the 2008 Olympic Trials, Clary came up just short of a berth. He placed third in the 200-meter backstroke and was fourth in the 400 IM.
"Obviously it would be really cool to be considered one of the best in Michigan history, but I like to think about it more in terms of racing on a day to day basis so it keeps you humble and you don't lose your edge," he says. "I don't consider myself in the same league as a Michael Phelps because that guy has gold medals coming out of his (rear)."
Clary knew Michigan was the perfect place for him to grow in the swimming world when he first made his official visit. At the time, he also had offers from Cal, Texas and Auburn.
"I took an unofficial visit to USC because that's my hometown school and I wanted to see what they had to offer," he says. "Then I took my first official visit to Michigan and it was awesome, but I didn't want to pull the trigger too early. I went home, thought about it, and then took my visit to Cal so I could make a comparison. After I visited Cal, I knew Michigan was the place and I canceled my trip to Texas and never set one up with Auburn.
"Now that I have been here awhile, it would take hours and hours to talk about all the plusses Michigan has to offer. It starts with the academics and then there's the camaraderie on the team, which really struck me on my visit. This was going to be my family away from my family at home and we have really formed an incredible bond. I have always said I would take a bullet for any of these guys."