LOS ANGELES, California: Jay Litherland will be swimming for three when he tackles the 400m individual medley at the Rio Olympics.
Triplets Jay, Kevin and Mick have matched each other stroke-for-stroke in their swimming careers. While Jay was the only one to punch his Olympic ticket this time, he will be buoyed in Rio by the solid support of his brothers.
“All for one,” Jay said of the philosophy that has seen the triplets stick close — despite a little sibling rivalry in and out of the pool.
When he knifed his way past 2012 champion Ryan Lochte on the final freestyle leg to seize second in the 400m medley behind Chase Kalisz at the US trials, Kevin and Mick could not contain their excitement.
They burst from the stands to congratulate him — only later worrying if the move could get him disqualified.
“Once I saw them, I just started crying,” Jay said. “It was amazing to share that experience with them.”
There were tears in the stands, too, from the triplets’ mother, Chizuko Litherland.
The three were born in her native Japan, where she met their father, New Zealander Andrew Litherland, while both worked at a ski resort.
After spells in New Zealand and Dubai, the family moved to the United States in 1999, living in California and Florida before settling in Georgia.
Through the many moves swimming was a constant for the triplets, who claim citizenship of three countries and speak Japanese as well as English.
Their father, Andrew, was not surprised to see them all end up together at the University of Georgia.
When they were youngsters and the family first moved to a house big enough for each to have his own room, they initially balked at the idea.
“They’re best friends,” Andrew Litherland said. “They’re so lucky to have each other. To get up in the morning and say, ‘Hey, get out of bed, let’s go.’ Or say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get to bed early, we’ve got practice in the morning.’ ”
They have rarely, if ever, spent more than a fortnight apart, so that even if Kevin and Matt attend the Rio Games as spectators, Jay said it would be a bit of a wrench not having them on the team through training camp and the Games.
“It’s always kind of different when I’m not with my brothers at a meet,” said Jay, noting the month he’ll spend with the US team will mark the longest he’s spent away from the other two.
Shark in the water
While many were astonished to see Jay mow down Lochte at trials, the man who once owned the 400m medley — Michael Phelps — said there was nothing shocking about it.
“I wasn’t surprised with Jay,” said the Olympic superstar, who had a glimpse of Litherland’s finishing power during a training camp in Colorado. “He’s like a shark in the water. He knows how to rise to the occasion.”
The chances for Kevin and Matt to qualify to represent the United States in Rio had always looked dimmer. In fact they tried earlier in the year to qualify to swim for New Zealand but each fell short.
“Yeah, there’s definitely a little jealousy,” Kevin acknowledged. “But that’s only going to make us stronger.”
And with Rio still on the horizon, the trio were already looking even further ahead — to the chance to form a triple threat for the USA in Tokyo in 2020.
“This is only the beginning,” Jay said. AFP