Rebecca Soni pumped her fist and beamed, a rare display of emotion from the breaststroke queen. Tyler Clary giddily splashed the water, having made up for all the close calls in his career.
Both played leading roles on a golden night at the pool for the United States, showing there’s more to this team than Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
Soni set her second world record in two days to defend her Olympic title in the 200-meter breaststroke Thursday, then Clary dealt Lochte a stunning loss in the 200 backstroke for the first gold of his career.
Sure, Phelps-Lochte II dominated much of the attention — Phelps beating his rival in the 200 individual medley, after losing to him in the 400 IM — but there were two other U.S. triumphs.
”I can’t believe I did it,” Soni said.
Bouncing back from the disappointment of getting silver in the 100 breast, Soni broke the 200 breast world record in the semifinals and set her sights on going even faster in the final. Really, she was racing the clock more than anyone in the pool.
When Soni touched in 2 minutes, 19.59 seconds, breaking the mark of 2:20.00 set 24 hours earlier, she leaped out of the water with joy, her fist in the air not once, but twice.
”Two fists pumps out of Rebecca Soni is huge,” her coach, Dave Salo, said. ”I’m probably more excited about that, just to see her happy. She’s a very serious athlete.”
Soni was so joyful because she fulfilled a lifelong dream.
”It’s been my goal since I was a little kid to go under 2:20,” Soni said. ”I’ve been chasing it ever since. I’m just so happy.”
Clary got off to a sluggish start, making the first turn in fourth. But he steadily moved up. Third at the halfway mark. Second as they made the final flip. Then, coming down the stretch, he surged past Lochte, who had led all the way, and touched with an Olympic-record time of 1:53.41. Japan’s Ryosuke Irie got past Lochte, too, for the silver. The defending world and Olympic champion settled for bronze.
”I can’t think of anything that I could have done any better,” Clary said. ”The last couple of races I knew there were a couple things that were a little sloppy and everything just worked out perfectly tonight.”
Until now, Clary was used to disappointment.
At the U.S. Olympic trials four years ago, he just missed out on a spot for the team in Beijing, finishing third in the 200 backstroke and fourth in the 400 individual medley. Only the top two go in each event.
Then, after winning a silver medal in the 400 IM at last year’s world championships, Clary didn’t even get to swim that event in London. Phelps unexpectedly added the race back to his program this year, and he wound up beating Clary for the second spot on the team at trials, finishing behind Lochte.
Clary was third, but he bounced back to qualify in two other events. Then he caused a stir in a newspaper article that quoted him saying Phelps didn’t really train that hard and basically got by on talent, which sounded like nothing more than sour grapes.
Clary apologized to Phelps, and the entire team for being a distraction.
Then he turned the 200 back into gold.
”It’s complete redemption,” Clary said. ”The fact that trials didn’t go the way I’d wanted and to kind of have everything that’s been going on leading up to this and still be able to come out successful is a testament to me more than anything, that I can handle anything that gets thrown at me.”
That means he’ll put his other plans on hold. The 23-year-old Clary has long dreamed of becoming a race car driver, and he was even looking to give up swimming after the London Games to get behind the wheel.
Now he’s staying in the water.
”I’m looking forward to Rio, especially now,” Clary said.
After the celebration ended, he looked up and pointed a finger toward the roof of the Olympic Aquatics Centre. Clary was thinking about his high school coach, Kevin Perry, the one who ”got me to where I am today.”
Perry died of cancer a few years ago.
”He’s definitely looking down and smiling,” Clary said.