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
At the 2016 Olympic trials, Jack Conger celebrated with his University of Texas at Austin teammate Townley Haas after their 200-meter freestyle swim. They both made the Olympic team.
When and how did you start swimming?
We went to the Outer Banks in North Carolina every summer on a big family vacation. My mom was always afraid I’d fall off the dock and drown, so she put me in swim lessons when I was 5.
Do you have a favorite swimming memory from growing up?
My first cool swimming memory from when I was young is when I broke a 25-yard fly record at Tilden Woods Pool that was set by a swimmer who went to the Olympic trials. I didn’t know who he was, but my coaches were really excited. They said he was almost an Olympian. I’d already broken a bunch of little pool records, but it kind of opened my eyes to the idea that if I broke his record, maybe I could go to the Olympic trials, too. I’d always wanted to be an Olympian, but this was the kind of thing that really, really made me want to achieve that.
Were there other moments when you got really serious about the Olympics?
I vividly remember watching the Olympic trials every night on the couch at home when I was 13. I remember seeing the [University of Texas] Longhorn caps on Brendan Hansen and Aaron Peirsol, and I told my mom I wanted one. She told me, ‘When you go to the Olympic trials, I’ll buy you one.’ The Olympics were in Beijing that year, and I would stay up until 2 a.m. to watch swimming. I watched all of Michael Phelps’ races, and was in shock at all he accomplished.
What are your favorite memories of growing up in Rockville?
We lived in Flower Valley, and I had four or five best friends who lived within walking distance. After school I’d always go to a friend’s house and we’d do our homework together, then go to baseball or basketball practice together or just hang out. I loved growing up in Rockville, and those friendships are a major reason why. We’d all hang out at the Flower Valley pool, and we got called ‘pool rats’ a lot because we would just spend the entire summer there. They always get in touch with me after big meets, which means a lot to me.
When did swimming start to get really serious for you?
Coach Dave Kraft at Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club would have a goal meeting with his swimmers every year. When I was 13, my mom [and I] walked into the meeting and he said, ‘Look, you can be really good, but you have to train your ass off. You’re not the most talented swimmer out there, but if you’re the most hardworking, things will fall into line for you.’ We talked about Olympic aspirations. He was the one who got me to think about that. In middle school I still played basketball, and after my last basketball game in seventh grade I said, ‘I’m done. I only want to swim. I want to go to the Olympics and I want to be a gold medalist.’ I showed up late to practice after that game, and I walked up to Dave and shook his hand and said, ‘I just played in the last basketball game of my life.’
Which other coaches had a big impact on you growing up?
I really have to credit Sue Chen, my club coach, who I still train with when I come back home, for me being the swimmer
I am today. She means the world to me. She coached me from age 14 to 18. I may have been good before, but it was under her that I became great. When I started with her in eighth grade, I was pretty lazy. The work ethic she allowed me to develop is what’s enabled me to succeed. She would tell me that I have a lot of talent, but that there will always be someone more talented. She would also tell me that since I’m not the biggest guy, I’d have to make up for that in training, and make sure I’m doing everything I can do so that when it’s time to race I never look back.
What would your normal day look like in high school?
It was horrible. On a typical day I’d wake up at 4:20 a.m., then go to practice from 4:45 a.m. to 6:15 a.m. I’d go to school all day, then go right to afternoon practice from 3:45 p.m. to 7 p.m. Then I’d go home, eat dinner and do my homework. Or, if I didn’t have a lot of stuff to do, I’d hang out with my friends. High school was brutal and a grind for me.
How did you get through that time?
There were times when I’d think, Wow, this is a lot right now. I don’t know if I really want to do this. I don’t know if my body will allow me to keep doing this. I did have to sacrifice a lot of high school life. So I’d just have to keep asking myself what’s more important: enjoying myself and having fun in high school, or achieving my swimming goals. I had to learn at a young age that I had to make a choice. My mom and dad and Sue helped me realize that you may have to pay the price for having to grow up early, but that it can be very rewarding in the end. They told me, ‘I’m not going to choose for you, but I want to remind you that the sacrifice will be worth it.’
Were there experiences that were tough to miss out on?
Yes. Beach Week, when seniors in Montgomery County traditionally go to the beach for a week with all their best friends. I really wanted to go. I knew my parents would let me go if I wanted to. But I didn’t even ask Sue if I could go because I already knew the answer. She asked me about it that spring, and I told her that I didn’t ask because I figured she’d yell at me for asking. She said she probably would have. I told her that’s exactly why I didn’t ask.
Did you know as soon as you touched the wall at the Olympic trials that you were going to the Olympics?
Being a student of the sport, I knew they had always taken the top six finishers [in the 200-meter freestyle, for the 800-meter freestyle relay]. And I knew that they have to take the top four. I can close my eyes and remember everything about that race. I was sitting in the ready room with my [University of Texas] teammate Townley Haas. I tend to take the ready room very seriously, but on that day, [we] were laughing and joking. I was seeded second or third, and he was seeded third or fourth, so we both had this feeling that we’d be all right. When I came off that last wall, I knew I was in third. I thought: You’ve made the Olympics. Let’s see if you can do it individually. I ran out of ground to do that. [Conger came in third, and only the top two finishers were selected to compete in the individual event.] But I knew as soon as I touched the wall that I’d made the Olympics. I was ecstatic. It was just a feeling of happiness, joy, and that all my hard work had just paid off. I felt immediately that I was part of that elite group now.
What are your best memories from the Olympics?
My favorite part was spending five weeks at Olympic Training Camp before the Olympics. It was very, very exciting being able to unite as Team USA. The U.S. Olympic swim team is one of the most successful and watched teams in the Olympics, and in the world, so it’s actually really important that we get the team chemistry right. We have to take care of business, but that time is also for us to become friends and gel as a team. Since I was a rookie, I really learned a lot. I could just sit at a table and listen to Ryan Lochte, Michael Phelps and Nathan Adrian talk, and learn so much. A lot of it was just about having confidence in our training. They would say, ‘You’re on this Olympic team for a reason—you don’t need advice from us.’ They all became friends over the course of the camp, and I text all of them to this day. It’s really cool becoming friends with some of the people I’ve looked up to since I was a kid.
When did you first meet Michael Phelps, and what was that like?
I first met him at 2015 nationals, after we both had really good 200-fly races. We just kind of started talking on the awards stand about the Olympic trials and our aspirations. He gave me some really good advice that I really took to heart—he told me to just keep doing what I’m doing. Everyone tries to make changes the year of the Olympics. But he told me, ‘You’re getting faster, you’re getting stronger, so there’s no reason to change anything.’ It was really cool being his teammate and sharing that experience with him. But when you’re his teammate you have to show him the respect of not being starstruck by him anymore. You can’t ask him for pictures or autographs—he deserves the respect of being treated like a regular person.
I have to ask about the gas station incident. What was that like from your perspective?
One thing I took away from it is that my mom always taught me that you can be guilty by association, and that it’s important to double-check and double-think the situations you put yourself in and the people you surround yourself with. It’s especially important for me now, because just by being associated with that incident, although I did nothing wrong and was innocent, it still reflected poorly on myself, my family, my university and my country. Having said all of that, I learned a lot about myself and who my real friends are as a result of that situation. It made me grow up a lot.
In terms of learning who my real friends are, I had tons of people texting me, but I noticed that a few people—my close friends—just texted, ‘I know you have a lot on your plate right now, but I just want to know that you’re OK.’ That meant a lot to me. In terms of what I learned about myself, there’s a Latin phrase, per aspera ad astra, that means ‘through the thorns and into the stars.’ To me, it means when things are really tough, keep digging deeper. Like in swimming, when you’re getting tired, you need to learn how to trick your mind to keep pushing through. In dealing with any kind of adversity, if you can dig deep and find the strength to keep going, it will make you a better, stronger person.
Did you ever think you’d be pulled off of your plane home to be questioned?
I didn’t really think about it at all. What I really want to do now is to focus on Tokyo 2020. I need to make sure I take care of business so that I can be remembered as Jack Conger, the amazing swimmer, not Jack Conger, the guy who got messed up in Rio.
Do you ever get hassled or heckled about it?
My friends will joke about it from time to time, and it’s hilarious with them. But during the first few months I was back in Austin, I would notice people I didn’t know looking at me and talking about me. I remember one particular instance in a restaurant when I’d been back in Austin for two days. I heard some people talking about it right next to me. I just left. I just didn’t want to deal with it. But it’s all over now. You live, you make mistakes, and hopefully you learn from them.
What are you studying in school, and what are your post-swimming aspirations?
I’m majoring in corporate communications with a minor in business, and I’d like to get into the public relations field whenever I retire. I’ve always been attracted to PR, and especially to crisis management, which is really funny because of what I went through last summer. But I like being under pressure and in the spotlight, and knowing that I can perform under that pressure. I like knowing that I can act fast and make quick decisions.
What’s next for you? Will you continue to train with your college team even though you won’t be competing at the collegiate level?
I’m still in school for one more year, and I’m still going to be swimming with my [UT] team because I think I’ve developed really well as a swimmer here. I’ve kept on getting faster and stronger, and I love my friends and family in Austin. It just feels like the right place for me right now.
I’ll probably be feeling the change in September because I won’t be training for the NCAAs—I’ll be training for nationals, which I will hopefully qualify for. I’ll be looking at sponsors and agents, but that’s not priority. Right now I’m really focusing on meeting my goals, but also just being a kid and having fun swimming. Sure, as a pro it will be my job, but I’m pretty sure any pro swimmer would say that it’s not work because they love it so much.
Amy Reinink is a frequent contributor to the magazine who also writes for Men’s Health and other publications.