Tyler Clary's comments on Michael Phelps were graceless, bitter--and smart

Could Tyler Clary's comments on Michael Phelps' work ethic be a good idea? (Getty Images)

Is it better to be remembered, or liked? Would you rather your name be known worldwide as "that whiny jerk," or to a tiny handful of people as "that decent guy? If your biggest, best shot at becoming anything more than "just" another solid American Olympic swimmer was going to pass by the boards unless you opened your mouth to say something villainous -- and true -- would you keep it shut?

It's easy to say yes, and maybe even Tyler Clary wasn't consciously saying no when he absolutely unloaded on Michael Phelps' work ethic in Tuesday's Press-Enterprise. Maybe he wasn't trying to play the villain to Phelps' hero, wasn't thinking about making national headlines, didn't actually mean to scream for attention. Maybe after Clary's years of work and years of frustration at Phelps's hands -- frustration which would have boiled over at Trials, when Phelps surprisingly swam in Clary's best event, the 400 individual medley, and easily beat him to deny Clary the chance to swim it in London -- Clary was asked an honest question and couldn't stop himself from giving a brutally honest answer.

It doesn't matter. Because whatever his intentions, Clary is America's swimming villain now, at least where the Olympics-viewing public is concerned. We all knew kids in high school who took endless notes in class, studied all night every night, did every homework assignment, and made good-but-not-great grades. We all also knew kids who never did his homework on time, fell asleep 10 minutes into every class, was never seen cracking a textbook, and aced every test anyway. And no one we knew liked it when that first kid started griping about how unfair it was they both got to wear honors robes to graduation.

No one outside of Clary's circle and his fellow Phelps-haters within the closed world of American swimming will be cheering him on for Tuesday's comments, and given the undisguised bile he directed Phelps' way -- even after Phelps had nothing but nice things to say about him in Omaha -- no one should. That's what being a villain is about.

But why should Clary care? Why shouldn't he be the villain? In the 200 butterfly, where he'll swim head-to-head with Phelps in London, he's gone from being an afterthought to the co-headliner, from "the other American" to "the American that dared to call out the king." He's taken down what would have been Phelps vs. Some Other Guys and put -- in front of as large an audience as swimming will ever have -- Phelps vs. Clary on the marquee. It's not like kicking Phelps' hornet nest will do anything to hurt his chances (as if a competitor like Phelps has any room remaining for extra motivation to win a gold-medal final). And if Clary somehow does the impossible and beats him, well, he'll have pulled off the swimming equivalent of Babe Ruth's point towards the outfield fence.

The worst-case scenario is that Phelps annihilates him -- something Clary knows as well as the rest of us is probably happening* regardless of what he says or doesn't say -- and Clary goes down alongside France's Alain Bernard as another swimmer who talked some smack in Phelps' general direction** and got a faceful of egg for his troubles.

But here's the thing: it's four years after Bernard's comeuppance in Beijing, and his name still has resonance for American swimming fans. So Clary wears the black hat and makes his race against Phelps -- and maybe even his effort in the 200 backstroke -- one for the history books instead of the all-time Olympic champion's scrapbook. Unless Clary was on the verge of earning some kind of life-changing sponsorship deal, is that really not worth the price of simply being known as a embittered bigmouth?

Besides, it must be pointed out: Clary's not wrong. Phelps himself has admitted he hasn't worked as hard as he should or could have since Beijing. It's not fair, strictly speaking, that Phelps is so supernaturally gifted that he can blow off the kind of training that would be essential for any other gold-medal hopeful and still be the best swimmer on the planet. It's arguably not fair to the rest of Team USA, for whom every hundredth Phelps might hypothetically lose off his best possible relay leg is a hundredth the entire relay loses (and Phelps will swim three of them).

So Clary's speaking something awfully close to the truth. He's speaking out in what's probably his own best self-interest. Is that really reason enough to root against him?

Of course it is. Sometimes sports just aren't fair, and the Trials were one of those times, and the way Clary handled that in the Press-Enterprise interview is with the opposite of sportsmanship and grace. Root against him all you like.

Just recognize that if you were in shoes, you might well have said the same things--and that whatever the fallout might be, you'd likely be doing yourself a favor.

*The 200 fly is Phelps' best event, one he hasn't lost at a major international event since 2002. Best of luck out there, Tyler.

**OK, so Bernard was ultimately humiliated in that epic 4x100 freestyle relay by anchor-leg swimmer Jason Lezak, not Phelps, and his comments that the French would "smash" the American relay were directed at the team at-large. Still: he messed with the bull of which Phelps was some part, and got the sharpest of horns.

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