By Paul Newberry
AP National Writer
OMAHA, Neb. — So much for a double take.
The Litherlands left everyone seeing triple at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials.
Jay, Kevin and Mick are 20-year-old triplets who competed in Omaha over the past week. While Jay was the only one to earn a spot in Rio, they’ll all be there in spirit.
“All for one,” Jay said.
The Litherlands produced one of the most indelible moments at the trials when Jay rallied on the freestyle leg of the 400-meter individual medley to stunningly pass defending Olympic champion Ryan Lochte for the second spot on the team behind winner Chase Kalisz.
As soon as they saw the “2” beside their brother’s name, Kevin and Mick hopped over a railing at the CenturyLink Center to congratulate him. Jay popped out of the water, the three of them embracing on the deck, before Jay jumped back into the pool, unsure if he was breaking some sort of rule.
No worries there.
He’s headed to the Olympics.
“Once I saw them, I just started crying,” Jay recalled at the end of the trials. “It was amazing to share that experience with them.”
Jay will be able to go home to Georgia for a few days, and then he hits the road again with the U.S Olympic team for its training camps in San Antonio and Atlanta.
He will likely be away from his brothers for at least a month, longer than they’ve ever been apart.
“It’s always kind of different when I’m not with my brothers at a meet,” Jay said, a bit of trepidation in his voice.
The triplets were born in Japan. Their mother, Chizuko, is from that country, while their father, Andrew, is a chef from New Zealand. The family settled in the United States when the boys were about 3 years old, and they’re now citizens of all three countries.
While impossible for many to tell apart on dry land, Jay has clearly pulled ahead of his brothers in the pool. He was the first to earn a spot on the U.S. national team, which meant that was the only country he could swim for at the Olympics.
Mick and Kevin could’ve competed for either Japan or New Zealand. Their father’s country was the best hope, but the brothers weren’t quite fast enough to be selected for the New Zealand team.
They were still able compete at the U.S. trials with their brother, but Jay was the only one with a legitimate shot to make the world’s most powerful swimming team.
In addition to his stunner in the 400 individual medley, he also qualified for the final of the 200 IM and finished fifth. He was competitive in the 200 backstroke, as well, but withdrew from that event after the prelims to put his focus solely on the 200 IM.
Kevin nearly qualified for the final of the 400 freestyle, missing the eighth spot by a mere 0.17 seconds. Mick was disqualified in the prelims of the 100 butterfly for a false start, and he was eliminated in the semifinals of the 200 fly.
For Kevin and Mick, Jay’s success has provided plenty of motivation.
“Yeah, there’s definitely a little jealousy,” Kevin said. “But that’s only going to make us stronger.”
When the Litherlands are in the pool, their coaches can easily tell them apart since they specialize in different events. Out of the water, the brothers have some subtle differences as well.
Mick is the father figure, the one who got his driver’s license more than a year ahead of his brothers and often served as their chauffeur. Kevin is the straightforward one, the guy who always says exactly what’s on his mind. Jay is considered the most free-spirited of the bunch, always going along for the ride.
That may have something to do with how they entered the world. Kevin was born first, followed by Mick and Jay. Kevin and Mick are identical, while Jay is fraternal.
“It’s weird how similar people think they look when they first see them,” said Gunnar Bentz, a good friend and fellow Georgia swimmer who also made the Olympic team. “But after like six months of knowing them, you really start to be able to tell. Their bodies are all a little bit different, their faces are all slightly different.”
Not that most people can tell.
In high school, they tried to use that to their advantage.
“We actually got DQed from a meet because of that,” Jay said with a sheepish grin. “I think Mick was sick or something and he couldn’t go, so I tried to swim his events. But they found out.”
At the University of Georgia, where all three are pursuing business degrees while competing for the school’s powerful swimming program, Mick and Kevin are roommates, while Jay rooms separately with Bentz.
But the triplets are never far apart.
“I’m always over there,” Jay conceded.
That’s no surprise. Even after their family moved to a bigger house, one that had enough bedrooms for each of them to have their own, the brothers continued to room together until they were 16. They never wanted to spend too much time apart.
“They’re best friends,” said Andrew Litherland, their father. “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 practice in the morning.’”
The triplets seriously considered going to different colleges, wondering if it was time to branch out on their own.
In the end, they all wound up at Georgia.
“They committed one at a time,” remembered their college coach, Jack Bauerle, “with a 15-minute break in between.”
Kevin and Mick want to be in Rio with their brother, but they aren’t sure if they’ll be able to go. Tickets and hotel rooms are hard to come by, and they’d have to miss a significant amount of class time heading into their junior years at Georgia.
Besides, they plan on competing together at the Tokyo Olympics four years from now.
All for one, you know.
“This is only the beginning,” Jay said. “I’m looking forward to going with them in 2020.”