CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Davis Tarwater didn't qualify for the London Games, yet Tuesday morning he joined seven other swimmers from North Carolina at Olympic practice.
Thanks to Michael Phelps.
Phelps' decision to pull out of the 200-meter freestyle in the upcoming London Games opened a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the 28-year-old Tarwater, who'd retired Sunday night after failing to make the team in three events.
When Tarwarter returned to Omaha, Neb., on Tuesday he sought out Phelps, telling him "I owe you dinner."
He said Phelps laughed at the gesture, then responded, "Alright."
Tarwater, who'll swim the 800-meter freestyle relay, joins a strong contingent with North Carolina ties heading to London: Cullen Jones, Nick Thoman, Micah Lawrence, Kara Lynn Jones, Ricky Berens, Charlie Houchin and Lauren Purdue all qualified for the Olympics.
Tuesday evening five of the swimmers returned to Charlotte were greeted by hundreds of cheering fans when they arrived at the airport.
"I'm shocked, we completely didn't expect this," said 2008 gold medalist Cullen Jones of the reception. "This is awesome."
Five of the swimmers — Tarwater, Lawrence, Thoman and the two Joneses (no relation) — train with Charlotte SwimMAC. Dave Marsh, the Charlotte SwimMAC coach, was also selected to join the men's Olympic coaching staff. He said the airport welcome was special to his swimmers.
"It was beautiful," Marsh said. "This is really touching for me, the show of support. I hope that everybody in Charlotte was connecting with our swimmers while we were at the Trials. And judging by the reception we had here tonight I feel certain it impacted the area and put folks in a patriotic mindset. We're thankful."
Nobody was feeling more thankful Tuesday than Tarwater, who had a whirlwind 48 hours.
He left Omaha a little depressed after failing to qualify in all three events he participated. His dreams of representing the United States in the Olympics had been dashed and he decided to retire.
Sitting in the Omaha airport at 6 a.m. Monday he bought a piece of pizza and devoured it — a symbolic gesture that he'd put the long hours of training behind him.
He was ready to move on to the next phase of his life.
But when he arrived at the Charlotte home a few hours later he learned that Phelps had withdrawn from the 200 freestyle. The next several minutes were frantic, not knowing if he'd made the team.
Then came the call from Marsh, who notified him he was on the team — and that needed to head back to Omaha right away for the Olympic team's first practice.
"I didn't believe it," Tarwater said. "When I got the news I was totally elated. In fact, elated doesn't even capture my true emotion."
Berens will race for Phelps in the 200 free, while Tarwater gets a spot on the relay team. Tarwater had the seventh-best time and the top six qualify.
With Phelps withdrawing he got the sixth spot.
"It's incredibly satisfying," Tarwater said. "I'm thankful that this went my way. God is good. Last week was a tough week. I felt like I swam well but I didn't get the result I hoped for. I was really close to making the team. It was a hard pill to swallow."
Now he has a chance at a storybook ending, possibly winning a gold medal in London.
Being the sixth man on relay likely means Tarwater will swim in the qualifiers, but the four men who swim in the finals is largely up to the coach's discretion. It's almost certain that Phelps and Ryan Lochte will be two of the members of the 800 free relay, so Tarwater will have to swim extremely well in the qualifiers to even have a shot at the finals.
Regardless, even if he doesn't swim in the finals he'd still win a medal if the United States places in the top three.
"Right now I'm just thrilled to have a spot," Tarwater said.
As for the dinner offer to Phelps, Tarwater said it was the only think he could think of to offer him.
"I mean, what do you do in that situation?" he said with a laugh. "Dinner seems like the least I can do."
For Cullen Jones, getting a chance to swim in the 50 free and 100 free in London takes the sting out of failing to qualify in any individual four years ago.
Jones won a gold medal four years ago as a member of a relay team but wanted more this time around.
"I feel great being able to say I have two individual events to swim," said Jones, who'll also compete on the 400-meter freestyle relay team. "It puts a little pressure on, but I welcome it. All of the training comes to a head now. Coach Marsh told me when the lights are the brightest you're going to show up, and that's exactly what I did."