2012 Olympics: Tyler McGill has earned his stripes
Editor's note: This story appeared in print on July 29. Here is a link to the London 2012 site for the 100-meter butterfly. And here is a link to the preview story from July 22 about discus thrower Gia Lewis-Smallwood.
Tyler McGill can't remember what city he was in or what swimming meet had drawn him there on that mid-August day in 2004.
The Champaign native, then little more than a week from beginning his junior year of high school, does recall being in a hotel room watching TV. The channel was turned to the Athens Olympics, and what was unfolding on the screen held his total attention.
It was the finals of the men's 800-meter freestyle relay, and Australia had the Thorpedo on its side. One day earlier, Ian Thorpe outdueled America's own water whirlwind, Michael Phelps, in the 200 freestyle — a showdown some in the media unabashedly dubbed The Race of the Century.
Now, the world's two best swimmers were back on the pool deck, each joined by three of their countrymen, in a much-anticipated relay final. With Phelps swimming the opening leg, the United States built a lead that held up through 600 meters. It was then the task of U.S. anchor Klete Keller to hold off the inimitable Thorpe.
The latter responded with the second-fastest relay split in history. Yet, somehow, Keller managed to hold him off in a frantic sprint to the final wall, the Americans winning by thirteen-hundredths of a second.
An ocean away, McGill couldn't contain himself.
"I remember jumping up and down and being really excited," he said recently. "That was the one moment where swimming first had a really, really large excitement level for me."
Now, eight years later, the 24-year-old Champaign Central graduate is about to experience the thrill of Olympic competition firsthand. That wide-eyed teenager, whose heart raced as Keller and Thorpe dueled to the finish, is an Olympian himself.
"There's not a moment where I distinctly remember saying, 'This is my dream,' " McGill said. "I just always remember watching and thinking how cool and how amazing it would be to be on that stage and to represent the United States."
For the world's third-ranked swimmer in the 100 butterfly, that time has come. On Thursday, with TVs all over the globe tuned in, McGill will make his Olympic debut.
His journey to London can be traced back to when Jeff and Susan McGill's second child was 11 years old. It's a journey that nearly was abandoned after his first day as a club swimmer.
Susan McGill was waiting in the parking lot at Centennial High School as kids spilled out the exits after a Storm Aquatics practice.
As Tyler climbed into her car, he immediately expressed reservations about continuing in the year-round club. Unaware that the serious swimmer comes equipped with more than a swimsuit, his first training session was extremely dispiriting.
"We were so unprepared for what that type of swimming entailed," Susan said. "He was swimming without goggles; his eyes were all bloodshot. He didn't have fins that help you to go faster when you're kicking so he was just kicking all on his own."
McGill also lacked that staple of all youth swim practices: the kickboard.
"We kind of went into it blindly, and that threw Tyler off," Susan said. "He wasn't so sure this was going to work because he needed that equipment and didn't have it all and didn't know how to use it.
"He went to his first practice, and it was almost his last."
Calmer heads prevailed. Susan assured Tyler that he'd be supplied with the necessary equipment. In short time, McGill found that he enjoyed the club, particularly for the camaraderie with fellow members that it offered.
"I wasn't like a huge swim nerd growing up; I just kind of did it because it was fun," McGill said. "I enjoyed being around the people at practice."
McGill has since come to appreciate, too, the role that Storm coach Will Barker played in his warming to year-round swimming. Barker, who earlier tutored McGill in the Champaign Country Club's summer swim program and also would coach him in high school, is a believer in keeping the workload for young swimmers within reason and guarding against burnout.
"Our sport is so demanding," Barker says. "You've got to want to be there."
To this day, the current coach of the Champaign County YMCA Heat swim team does not make all practices mandatory, even in the oldest age groups.
"Will did a great job of — not easing me into swimming — but controlling the intensity of my workouts at a young age," McGill said. "So I don't remember at a young age just being bombarded with yardage and being overwhelmed by swimming."
Once in year-round swimming, it quickly became apparent that McGill had a talent in the sport and the desire to further develop it. By the time he was 12 1/2, McGill was winning some age-group state titles and was good enough to make the Illinois team that competed in USA Swimming zone championships.
"It was gradual, but you could see the trend," Barker said. "He was willing to do whatever it took to push himself to that next level. Year after year, you could see there's something special there."
The first time Barker laid eyes on McGill was at a country club swim practice. Then 9, McGill had, to put it kindly, a unique stance on the starting block. Instead of reaching down to grip the block and using his arms as well as his legs to propel him into the water, McGill stood in a slight crouch with both arms pointed backward.
"His head's up. His butt's sticking out," Barker said. "It slowed him down because he had to swing his arms forward, but he wouldn't start any other way."
The puzzled coach finally asked McGill, What's up with that?
"Well, that's what the trophy looks like," he responded.
McGill, it turned out, had taken note of an "old-school" swimmer's pose atop some of the trophies given out at youth meets.
"And so he figured that's how you start," said Barker, who eventually convinced the youngster to change his ways. These days, McGill boasts one of the quickest starts in the world. In the 100 butterfly finals at the U.S. Olympic Trials, he recorded the fastest time into the water — 0.59 second — no small reason McGill finished second and earned a trip to London.
"That's pretty dang quick, so he's come a long way with that," Barker said.
To put McGill's start that night in perspective, he was at least 0.06 second faster off the blocks than any of the finalists in the 50 freestyle — an event in which quick starts are absolutely crucial — at the U.S. Trials.
Jeff McGill still has the race on an old VHS tape he's been meaning to convert to DVD. His son was in Rochester, Minn., for a USA Swimming zone meet, and going into the final turn of the 200 individual medley, Tyler McGill was well behind the leaders.
Then, the kid from Champaign started reeling them in.
"He just blew them away on that final 50 meters," Jeff said. "It was something I'd never really seen him do before, come from that far behind and win."
It was the first time, Jeff says, that he sensed Tyler could be something special in the sport.
In short time, others would take notice, too. During the summer that McGill turned 14, the family was in Wichita, Kan., for a zone meet. After winning numerous events and setting several age-group records, Tyler was walking away from the pool when he heard his name called out. Seconds later, he was scribbling his name on pieces of paper.
"Of course, we all kind of laughed at the thought that some teenage kid would want another teenage kid's autograph," Jeff McGill said.
But what Tyler's father remembers most vividly was the eye-opening explanation of one of the autograph-seekers.
"Because you're going to be in the Olympics some day."
A young Tyler McGill was an athlete for all seasons. Little League baseball. Park district soccer. Golf. Cross-country in middle school.
"(Swimming) was never the focal point of my interest until I got to high school," he said. "I pretty much played every sport growing up. I always had my interests outside the sport of swimming."
Even after his world began to revolve around the pool, McGill never was a one-sport athlete at Champaign Central. From cross-country to track to golf, the four-time IHSA state swimming champion represented the Maroons in at least one additional sport every year of his high school career.
In typical fashion, McGill threw himself fully into the sport of the moment.
"When I was doing the other (sports), that's where my mind was," he said. "I would still swim a little bit but not intensely; maybe a couple times a week. But when I did the other sports for Central ... that's what my focus was during those seasons."
Dike Stirrett can attest to that. He coached McGill in cross-country and track during the latter's first year at Central.
"He was a very goal-oriented kid," Stirrett said. "He had high standards for himself, and he had goals and he wasn't afraid to express those goals."
In particular, the current Unity High School coach was impressed by the curiosity that McGill showed in the training process. The then-freshman peppered Stirrett with questions.
"He wanted to know why we were doing the things we were doing in training," said Stirrett, a 39-year veteran of cross-country coaching. "What was the purpose behind this? What should he do next? He was trying to learn, and I really appreciated that. I've had a few others like that in my career, and usually they end up well. They want to be good at what they're doing.
"With his attitude, his desire to improve, I guess it's not too surprising that he's gotten where he's gotten."
McGill's diverse athletic background is a frequent topic when he speaks to youth groups. It worked for him, he tells youngsters, and it can work for them.
"What I always tell young kids today is be an athlete," he said. "Don't necessarily just do one thing. Find other things you enjoy doing and be an athlete outside the water because it will end up helping you be a better athlete in the water."
Even before McGill arrived at Central in the fall of 2002, he was well known in local swimming circles because of his club success.
One winter night, the then-eighth-grader joined his Storm Aquatics teammates for practice at Unit 4 Pool, a facility inside Centennial High School that also was shared by the swim teams at Champaign's two public high schools.
Central swimmers had just finished their workout, with Storm Aquatics next into the pool. Several Maroons remained on the deck to watch McGill warm up, aware that the record-setting swimmer would be one of them the following season.
The early reviews were flattering, recalls Tyler's older brother.
"They're going on and on about how good he looks and how fast he looks when he swims," said Elliott McGill, a sophomore on that Maroons team.
Then, the gushing words abruptly stopped, replaced by another type of gushing.
"There was blood everywhere," Elliott said.
Tyler, unaware that he was so close to the wall while doing the backstroke, turned too late to avoid smacking his face into the gutter. His nose took the brunt of the damage.
"Everyone went from, 'This is the savior of Central swimming' to 'Man, he just broke his nose almost. He's not that good,' " recalled Elliott, now the head swim coach at Eastern Illinois University.
The fault wasn't totally Tyler's. Backstroke flags, used to alert swimmers doing that stroke to the approaching wall, had been removed from the end of the pool where Central's divers practiced. Maroons swimmers were aware of the flags' absence, but others easily could have been taken by surprise.
Through the years, Tyler McGill has given Elliott plenty of reasons to brag on his younger brother, but what happened that night was a little comforting — at least for one of them.
"Maybe because I'm big brother and I never was as good (at swimming) as Tyler, but it's always nice to know that he's human, too," Elliott said.
There can be no doubt that the 100-meter butterfly is Tyler McGill's signature event.
From 2009 to '11, he finished second each year in his speciality at the USA Swimming national championships. In 2011, he earned a bronze medal in the 100 fly at the FINA World Championships. For a brief time in 2009, the then-Auburn University junior held the American record in the 100-yard butterfly. It's also the stroke that has earned McGill three world championships gold medals as a member of U.S. 400 medley relay teams.
And now, of course, it's the event that served as McGill's entry into the company of Olympians.
It wasn't always so. Anyone who followed the Champaign native's high school feats might have been surprised that when McGill emerged as one of the world's best swimmers, it was in the butterfly.
After all, none of his four IHSA state titles as a Maroon was in the fly. McGill made his reputation then in the 200 freestyle, an event he won three times at state. And it wasn't until his junior year at Auburn that he made a major splash in the 100 fly by placing second in the NCAA Championships.
Don't be fooled. There were extenuating circumstances.
During McGill's Central tenure, the Maroons didn't lack for top-tier butterfly talent. Classmate Ross Moore was the state's champion in 2006, one year after placing third in the event. Fellow Maroon Nick Lore also excelled in the stroke.
"We were loaded in the butterfly," said Barker, a Maroons assistant during McGill's freshman season and his head coach the next three years. "So we needed him to be strong somewhere else, and he did it. And he did it without any complaints. He never even asked, 'Can I do butterfly at state?' Never. The ultimate team player."
But there were always indications that McGill could thrive in the butterfly. He finished seventh and fourth at state in the event during his first two seasons at Central. In 2006, he won the 100 fly at the U.S. Junior National Championships. The previous year, he was third in the same meet.
"You do things on a team for the good of the team, but that's not to say I wasn't a 100 flyer back then," McGill said. "I had had plenty of success in the 100 fly before I got to college. It's just been more successful since."
His experience as a college freshman was similar, the Auburn staff focusing his training in the 500 freestyle and 400 individual medley as well as the 200 butterfly. Then ...
"We got to the conference meet and my 500 was not very good on the first day," McGill said, "so last minute they switched me over to the 100 fly for the second day. The rest is history."
To look at Tyler McGill, you might never imagine he is one of the world's best swimmers. At 5-foot-11 and 172 pounds, he hardly has the prototypical build of an Olympian in his sport.
Certainly, it would be unfair to compare him to the freakishly blessed Phelps, a 6-4 tower of power with a remarkable wingspan. But stand McGill next to other big-name U.S. swimmers, like 6-2 Ryan Lochte and 6-5 Cullen Jones, and the difference is apparent. Even as McGill has risen to near the top in the world rankings and accumulated international medals, his physical stature continued to create doubters.
"He's had a lot of naysayers," Barker said. "(They say) he's not tall enough; he's not big enough; there's no way he can be an Olympian. Nice fast swimmer, but there are people out there who kept saying he's just not going to make it to that level."
His big brother has heard the skeptics, too, and isn't particularly surprised.
"As he's grown into his career, Tyler hasn't always garnered the same respect as, say, certain larger athletes have," Elliott McGill said. "And I think that's typical in most sports."
So, how has Tyler McGill continued to prove the doubters wrong? The same way, Barker says, he made himself into a high school state champion and a highly sought college recruit.
"He's got incredible work ethic, great technique and he will do whatever it takes to fix the details," Barker said. "Fixing his turn. Getting faster off the blocks. Taking a few strokes off his stroke counts."
In other words, maximizing what he does have to work with, combined with other attributes that go deeper than appearance.
"Sometimes those smaller things like mental toughness and hard work and determination and technique, they aren't considered by those so-called experts," Elliott McGill said.
An NBC camera focused on Tyler McGill within seconds after the race. After emerging from the water, he immediately looked toward the results board at the CenturyLink Center pool in Omaha, Neb., site of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
Then, it registered. He had finished second. He was going to London. He was an Olympian.
McGill pumped his fist at the realization, his eyes wide and his expression ... well, open to interpretation.
"Some people said I looked angry," he said, "and I could see how they could say that."
Indeed. At that moment, McGill's joy appeared hidden behind a mask of determination so thick that it would not loosen its grip. No beaming smile. Or even a look of relief. More like a guy who, if needed, was immediately ready to repeat the battle he'd just waged with winner Phelps.
As McGill — his no-nonsense visage still firmly in place — explained to an NBC interviewer shortly afterward, this result was an expectation. He had made a decision that morning, he told a national audience, that he would make the Olympic team.
"My whole thought process was nothing's going to stop me from achieving my goal," McGill said weeks later. "There was an extreme focus and determination that I had that day, and I think that's what showed after the race. I had such a strong belief in myself that I was to be an Olympian."
Barker, who watched the race from just beyond the pool deck, followed McGill to three succeeding interviews that night. At first, "his adrenaline was just over the top," Barker said. "His eyes were huge, and he was just emotionally jacked."
Eventually, the first-time Olympian came down from his intense high. And when he was greeted by wife Julianne and his mother — hugs all around — McGill flashed a world-class smile.
So did a lot of other people who in some way have been a part of this long and winding journey to London. After all, as Dike Stirrett put it: "This is pretty elite stuff we're talking about now."