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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Tyler Clary loves to race, whether he's in the water or behind the wheel.
Still, the guy who won a gold medal in swimming at the London Olympics figured no one would take his other passion seriously if he didn't make a bold gesture.
So, he packed his bags, moved to the heart of NASCAR country, and struck up a friendship with six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
Clary hopes it will ultimately pay off with his own stock car ride, though swimming remains his top priority at the moment.
"It becomes more real for everybody, especially when you're knocking on the doors of the team, you're meeting people face to face," Clary said. "They can see it in my eyes, how I carry myself, that I'm serious about it."
The plan is to take more swimming gold at the 2016 Rio Games before switching full-time to NASCAR the following year. There would be stints in both Trucks and the Nationwide Series, with the ultimate goal of moving up to Sprint Cup in 2021.
By then, he'll be 32 years old, certainly rather old by racing standards to be breaking in as a rookie.
But Clary shrugs off those who might say he's been stuck too long at the starting line.
"It used to be that you had to be young to take the impacts and forces and conditions inside the car," he said. "Now that the driver support systems have some so far, you can do it into a much older age than you used to. Just look at Mark Martin," referring to the driver who was still highly competitive well into his 50s.
Besides, Clary added, "I've made a living doing things people never thought I could."
Indeed, a chip-on-the-shoulder outlook has helped Clary keep up with seemingly more gifted swimmers such as Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. In 2012, Clary failed to make the U.S. Olympic team in what was seemingly his best event, the 400-meter individual medley, but he shook off that disappointment to qualify in two other races. Then, at London, he upset Lochte in the 200 backstroke for the first gold medal of his career.
Clary's love of cars goes back to the earliest memories of his family heading to the California desert to race dune buggies. As a self-proclaimed nerd, he was especially intrigued by the high-tech world of Formula One but knew it would be a real longshot to break into that form of racing. NASCAR was a better fit.
"The capabilities of the Formula One car are incredible," Clary said. "But I think the capabilities of the drivers in stock car racing are that much and more. You have less grip, you have less down force, the cars are heavier, yet they are still doing things in those cars that most people would think are impossible."
It helps to have friends in high places.
After moving to Charlotte in March to train with SwimMAC Carolina, Clary was thrilled when he heard that Johnson usually swims a couple of times a week at the team's main training pool, the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center. Coach Dave Marsh arranged a meeting between the two, and they quickly struck up a friendship.
Clary is working with Johnson, who swam on his high school team, to improve his stroke. Johnson is passing along plenty of helpful tidbits about racing.
"I know that he has a passion for motorsports and wants to get involved," Johnson said. "I'd love to help. He's a great guy."
For now, Clary is trying to get as much practice time as he can in late-model cars. Next year, he hopes to enter a few races in the K&N Pro Series East, a regional circuit owned by NASCAR. In 2016, he'll be fully focused on swimming through the Olympics, but plans to shift to racing as soon as he's done at Rio, with an eye toward landing a full-time ride in the Truck Series the following year.
"I've been telling him, under the radar, if he can try to drive late models and get seat time to get that transition going, and obviously work on some sponsorship," Johnson said.
Marsh made it clear to Clary he didn't want him coming to Charlotte unless swimming was his primary focus through the Olympics. Besides, another gold medal at Rio would likely enhance Clary's chances of moving to NASCAR, especially when it comes to funding.
"Everybody's told him, 'The best thing you can do to get a better NASCAR (deal) is to swim faster,'" Marsh said. "That's where his reputation is, that's where his branding is, that's where his unique name is."
Clary can't wait to get started.
"I'm one of those guys who has a screw loose," he said with a smile. "I'd rather go out with a big, fiery crash than slowly dying in my bed as an old guy."
AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer in Concord, North Carolina contributed to this report.
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