Bethesda Interview: Jack Conger
The Olympic swimmer talks about growing up in Rockville, the advice he got from Michael Phelps, and that night at the gas station in Rio
Photo by Drew Anthony Smith
Name: Jack Conger
What he does: Professional swimmer
Jack Conger had just finished a workout at the U.S. Olympic swim team’s training camp in Atlanta last summer when teammate Ryan Lochte, someone Conger had looked up to for years, asked him to come sign autographs. “Dude, they don’t want my autograph,” Conger said.
“You’re an Olympian,” Lochte told him. “They do want your autograph.”
The two stayed late until the line of fans dwindled.
“He looked at me after the last person was gone and said, ‘I never leave someone out who wants an autograph—because this will never last, Jack,’ ” Conger says. “That has really stuck with me.”
For Conger, now 22, it was one of many surreal experiences that followed the moment he touched the wall at the 2016 Olympic trials in Omaha, Nebraska, realizing a dream he’d hatched as a kid growing up in Rockville. By placing third in the 200-meter freestyle final, he earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic 800-meter freestyle relay team. “When I saw my mom, my dad and my sister [in the arena], it all really hit home,” he says. “I didn’t start crying until I saw my mom later that night at the hotel.”
Conger, who went on to earn a gold medal at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro by swimming in the semifinals of the freestyle relay and helping the U.S. qualify for the finals, became a competitive swimmer at age 9. At his neighborhood pool, Flower Valley in Rockville, he quickly began demolishing records in Montgomery County’s summer league. He was also a rising star in the region’s club swim team system, where he was a member of the Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club before following his coach, Sue Chen, to Machine Aquatics and then to the Nation’s Capital Swim Club. A 2013 graduate of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Conger was a three-time Washington Post All-Met Swimmer of the Year and broke a national high school record in the 100-yard butterfly. Swimming World Magazine named him a “National High School Swimmer of the Year” in 2013.
Conger accepted an athletic scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin (UT), where he helped lead the Longhorns to three consecutive NCAA men’s swimming and diving national championships, most recently in March. He made headlines last summer in Rio, but not for the reasons he’d hoped. It started during a night out with teammates Lochte, Gunnar Bentz and Jimmy Feigen. Lochte told reporters that he and the three other swimmers were the victims of a robbery at gunpoint that night, but a police investigation showed that security guards at a gas station stopped the swimmers after they urinated outside and damaged a poster.
The incident was covered by media outlets around the world, and commentators criticized the swimmers for drawing negative attention to Team USA. Conger, who admits to urinating in public and having too much to drink that night, maintains that he did nothing else wrong. According to media reports, police later said that he and Bentz were “witnesses to a crime.” Three days after the incident, Brazilian officials removed Conger and Bentz from a plane headed home and detained them overnight for questioning; they were on their way back to the U.S. the following evening. Later, the U.S. Olympic Committee suspended Conger, Feigen and Bentz for four months. Lochte received a 10-month suspension, and he and Feigen both had to perform community service.
Conger, who will be a fifth-year senior at UT this fall, is no longer eligible to compete with his college team. He’s officially a professional swimmer, meaning he can seek endorsement deals and receive money to swim. He has his eyes on the summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, where he hopes to compete in individual events and relays. He shared his plans to get there, along with his Olympic memories, by phone from Austin.