LONDON – If U.S. alpine racers Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso gave us "frenemies" in Vancouver in 2010, then Michael Phelps and Tyler Clary are providing "the pickle in the pool."
Given his opportunity to diffuse the critical remarks of his USA Swimming teammate on Thursday, Phelps expressed the diplomacy to move on but made no mention of forgiveness in his first Olympic Games press conference. Instead, Phelps said he would answer the barbs – in which Clary said Phelps didn't work as hard as he could – by hashing it out in the pool.
"Some people like to express their feelings in words, some like to express them in actions," Phelps said. "I've always done that by swimming, and that's how I will continue to do it. People can say and do what whatever they want. That is fine. I've gotten to where I am today from working hard, and I know that and [Phelps's coach Bob Bowman] knows that. If nobody else thinks that, it doesn't really matter. I'm very happy with my career and what I've done throughout it."
Clary is making his first Olympics appearance, competing in the 200-meter backstroke and against Phelps in the 200-meter butterfly. But it was what he told the Riverside Press-Enterprise earlier this month that raised eyebrows – and clearly the ire of Phelps. According to Clary's comments, he saw "a real lack of preparation" from Phelps when the two trained in the same University of Michigan facilities for one year prior to the 2008 Beijing Games.
"Basically, he was a swimmer that didn't want to be there," Clary was quoted as saying. "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.
"I've always called myself more of a blue-collar worker, as far as swimming goes. I work my [butt] off all the time. That's not to say that everybody else doesn't. But the fact that I know I work harder than he does makes me appreciate every little goal and every little gain that I make.
[ Memorable Moments: Phelps goes eight-for-eight in gold medals in Beijing ]
"The fact that he doesn't have to work as hard to get that done [winning gold medals], it's a real shame. I think it's too bad. You see that all too often, where you get athletes that are incredibly talented that really take it for granted. 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."
Phelps said Clary approached him in his room and apologized for the comments, adding with a less-than-convinced look that Clary had said the remarks were "taken out of context." Fellow U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte said Clary also apologized to the team.
"I didn't really hear anything until he had to apologize to the team," Lochte said. "Afterwards I was like 'What just happened? What happened?' He addressed it to the team. He said sorry. That's all you can do. You can just accept it, get over it and move on."
It's hardly the first morsel of discomfort we've seen in U.S. Olympics history. Indeed, there is often some kind of subtext of discontent from those who are trying to escape the shadow of dominant teammates. In Vancouver, there was a palpable tension between Vonn and Mancuso, two fast friends in U.S. alpine skiing whose relationship cooled over the years and settled into more of a mutual toleration. And who can forget the far less subtle distaste that some in the same U.S. skiing program developed for Bode Miller, who managed to repair at least some of the strain at the last Winter Games.
Inside the swimming family, Clary's comments fall into a similar realm. He and Phelps are reputed to be amicable teammates who are not the greatest of friends. Which is why Clary's comments have been alternately skewered and shrugged off in swim circles. Indeed, Phelps's 14 gold medals in the Olympics have essentially placed him beyond reproach no matter how he trains. But Clary's words also were a lightning rod of sorts, thanks to Phelps's oft-reported difficulties finding the practice fortitude to crank it up for one more Olympics barrage.
But Phelps's "sort it out in the pool" theme and dismissive body language suggested he clearly took exception to Clary's comments. As did Bowman, who made it a point to bring up Phelps's work ethic in unprompted fashion on Thursday. Bowman never said Clary's name, but it was clear who he was taking aim at.
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"The thing that made Michael great [in past Olympics] was work," Bowman said. "I don't know of any other person, other than the two sitting up here – maybe [others] have done it – but we trained every day for six years leading up to the Athens Olympic Games. Every day. And he worked as hard as anybody could possibly work during that time. I just want to be very clear on that. And after that, he kept working. He took Sundays off because we were doing weight training and stuff. But in terms of work, he's done the work."
"Whatever you say, you say," Phelps said. "But we are teammates, and as Team USA, we always have come into competition as one and we've left as one. We always compete together. We race together."
And they'll race together again Monday in the same preliminary heat in the 200-meter butterfly. Phelps and Clary will be separated by one lane, close enough to sort out any lingering issues in front of the rest of the world.
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