RIO DE JANEIRO – The scene on the pool deck in Omaha 40 days ago was very much against the rules.
University of Georgia swimmer Jay Litherland had just roared from way behind in the final 100 meters of the 400 individual medley, passing defending Olympic gold medalist Ryan Lochte late to secure a surprising spot on the U.S. team for Rio. That’s when his two brothers spilled out of the stands and trespassed onto the deck to embrace Jay.
Here came Kevin Litherland, oldest of the three, to hug baby brother. And then here came middle brother Mick.
“When Jay touched the wall and we saw that he out-touched Lochte, we were all in shock,” Mick Litherland said. “I couldn’t believe it. Looking back, I think it was not the best idea to go out there on deck after everyone was finishing, but at that moment, I didn’t even think or care about what was going to happen, I just wanted to see my brother. It was a very special moment, something I will never forget.”
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The age difference between the three? Two minutes, from oldest to youngest. On Aug. 24, 1995, in Osaka, Japan, Kevin Ryo Litherland was born a minute before Mick Satoshi Litherland, who was born a minute before Jay Yutaka Litherland.
Since then, the very nearly identical Litherland triplets have done everything together. They slept in the same room growing up – continuing that life-long dynamic for several weeks even after the family moved into a bigger house and each had their own room. They swam together at every stage – from the pool in the backyard as little kids to Dynamo (Ga.) Swim Club as teens to Jack Bauerle’s Georgia Bulldogs as collegians.
“We have always loved the pool,” Jay said. “And loved being in it together.”
But now there is a little pool separation anxiety. For a joyous reason.
Since shortly after that stunning night in Omaha, Jay has been on his own. He’s been with Team USA at training camp in San Antonio and Atlanta, and now he is in Rio prepping for his Olympic moment in the 400 IM Saturday.
Mick and Kevin are no slouches in the water – Kevin was 24th at Olympic trials in the 200 freestyle and also swam the mile. Mick made the semifinals (top 16) in the 200 butterfly and also swam the 400 freestyle.
But Jay has nudged past them and become the star inhabitant of Litherlandia. In addition to his second in the 400 IM, he was fifth in the 200 IM, ninth in the 400 free and ninth in the 200 backstroke. He’s the national teamer and will take the family name here to Rio.
Jay is the go-with-the-flow triplet who does not apply much pressure to himself in the pool. Kevin is more of a self-critic, both academically and athletically. Mick probably is the most mature, the one most likely to put schoolwork and practice before socializing.
While Jay has been in training for the Games, Mick and Kevin went back to Japan to see family – their mother, Chizuko, is a native of Japan and their father, Andy, is from New Zealand. At the family home in Alpharetta, Ga., the family speaks a good deal of Japanese – and eats very well. Andy is the executive chef for the Ritz-Carlton Reynolds Plantation outside Atlanta.
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In addition to being raised bilingual, the boys all developed distinct roles in making the family swimming machine work. Mick got his driver’s license a year before his brothers and did all the driving to and from practice and school. Jay was in charge of making breakfast before morning practices.
“Kevin had no task,” Mick said with a laugh. “He didn’t do anything.”
Given the natural bonds, it was no surprise that they went to college together. Bauerle was the coach who hit the triplet lottery – recruiting them as a package deal but getting the news of their commitments individually. The boys took turns calling him 10 minutes apart to announce they would be Bulldogs.
Since then, Bauerle has been even more impressed by their attitudes than their ability.
“Every day after practice, they say thank you to me and my staff,” said Bauerle, who is one of the U.S. assistant coaches here in Rio. “Even on days when I give them brutal workouts. They’re true gentlemen.”
Said Mick: “Our coaches have been by our side watching us grow since the end of high school. We couldn’t have gotten this far without them. They wake up every morning the same time as us to coach us; the least we can do is thank them for their passion and commitment for the team, even if they do kill us time to time in practice.”
An affinity for punishing practices has paid off in a familial knack for rousing finishes. The Litherland boys are finishers – none more than Jay.
In the 2015 World University Games, Jay stormed home in the final 100 of the 400 IM in a sizzling 56.42 seconds to win gold and establish a new best time of 4:12.43. In Omaha he brought home the freestyle in 57.38 to finish in 4:11.02, crushing that previous best time from last summer.
“We are never surprised when Jay drops a 56 or a 57 split on the last 100 of a 400 IM,” Mick said. “We see it a lot in practice.”
They will be watching for that closing burst from Japan with a large group of family, while their parents are here in Rio. On paper, the race for gold could boil down to the Japanese tandem of Kosuke Hagino and Daiya Seto against American trials champion Chase Kalisz – the Litherlands’ teammate at Georgia.
But it would be a mistake to overlook Jay Litherland – ask Ryan Lochte. If the youngest member of American swimming’s best brotherhood sneaks onto the podium Saturday night, you might be able to hear his brothers cheering from Japan. But at least they won’t be trespassing on the pool deck this time.
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