(L-R) Jay Litherland and Chase Kalisz celebrate after the final heat of the men's 400 meter IM at the U.S. Olympic Team Team Trials For Swimming at CenturyLink Center on June 26, 2016 in Omaha, Neb.
OMAHA, Neb. – Jay Litherland pulled himself out of the water and into a quick hug from one of his brothers. And then another hug, from his other brother.
Mick and Kevin Litherland had scampered onto the pool deck at CenturyLink Center with the same speed Jay showed over the final two laps of the 400-meter individual medley, the speed that allowed him to finish second Sunday night in the first final of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming.
These are three brothers separated by a minute each at birth, three brothers whose lives in three countries have been 20 years of fraternal embrace, three brothers who chose to stay in the same bedroom for a couple months after their parents moved into a house with a bedroom for each.
“It was kind of hard to move out,” Jay said, “and it felt really weird when we did. We’ve never really split up.”
No wonder the moment when Jay put himself into a position to be on the U.S. Olympic team was something the Litherland triplets could not wait to share.
“It meant the world when I saw them coming up to me,” Jay said. “It was the best feeling ever. They have been my biggest supporters. They’re literally part of me.”
The brothers, born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a New Zealand father, are bilingual in Japanese and English and hold triple nationality. They have been trying to make the Olympic teams of two different countries.
All three are swimming here in several events, but Kevin and Mick knew their best chance of going to Rio was by qualifying for the New Zealand team. To do that, each had to meet a time standard by mid-April, when they competed as invited guests at the Canadian Olympic Trials.
Kevin missed by 0.31 seconds in the 400 freestyle. Mick missed by 1.09 seconds in the 200 butterfly.
“All of us dream of being in the Olympics,” Mick said Sunday afternoon. “If one of us makes it, I’d be happy, no matter what else happens.”
In the 400 freestyle heats Sunday, Kevin had finished ninth overall (missing the final by 0.07 seconds) and Mick 23rd, each in a personal best time. Neither has strong enough credentials in any event to be a U.S. Olympic team contender.
“I’ve told them this is only the beginning,” Jay said. “We all learn from this. I think they will definitely have a chance next time.”
Jay is not officially on the U.S. team yet, because only the winner is guaranteed a place until later in the trials because of the limit on the total number of swimmers from each country. But since those quotas were instituted, the top two swimmers in every event at the U.S. trials always have made the Olympic team.
He had trailed Ryan Lochte, defending Olympic champion in the event, by more than two seconds going into the final 100 meters of freestyle. That gap did not concern Michael Phelps as he watched from the media seats.
“Watch how Jay is going to come back,” said Phelps, who no longer swims the event he won at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. Phelps felt the same about his club teammate Chase Kalisz, who rocketed past Lochte in the final 175 meters to win in a decidedly pedestrian time of 4 minutes, 9.54 seconds.
Litherland clocked 4:11.02, beating Lochte by exactly a second.
“I was never losing hope, but I never really thought I would catch him (Lochte),” Jay said. “I’m kind of in shock.”
Jay’s options were limited to the U.S. team because he already had represented this country in international completion, winning the 400 IM at the 2015 World University Games.
Mick thought it was disorienting to swim at the Canadian Olympic Trials without Jay. “It’s a little harder mentally when it’s just the two of us,” he said. “I’m just excited to be here with my brothers.”
They all are rising juniors at the University of Georgia. Its coach, Jack Bauerle, made his first recruiting call to them as a conference call with all three listening, so none would think he was favoring one over the other. They did commit to the Bulldogs in separate calls 10 minutes apart.
“When I did my home visit, it took me the full dinner to get them down straight, who was who,” Bauerle said. “Then they got a haircut before they came, which changed the dynamics. But I’ve got them down pat now.
“They’re fun to coach, because the attitude’s always positive. And they’re all real gentlemen.”
Their father, Andrew, from Auckland, met his wife of 21 years, Chizuko, when they both were working at a ski resort in Akakura Onsen, Japan, about 20 miles north of 1998 winter Olympic host city Nagano. He was a chef, while she cared for children in the resort’s day care center.
For a few years, they bounced back and forth between ski resorts in Japan and New Zealand, taking advantage of the season reversal between the northern and southern hemispheres. The triplets would be born Aug. 24, 1995 in Osaka, her hometown.
They first moved from Japan to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where Andrew began his career with Ritz Carlton, before coming to the United States in 1999. There would be stops in Rancho Mirage, California; Miami; Orlando, Florida; then Miami again before getting to Georgia, where Andrew now is executive chef at the Ritz Carlton Reynolds Plantation.
Kevin and Mick are identical, Jay fraternal. They were born two months premature, Kevin first, then Mick, then Jay, all with weakened lung systems and resultant breathing issues that had the boys in and out of hospitals for a few months.
Having been competitive swimmers themselves – Andrew to age 12, Chizuko through high school – they knew the sport can often help strengthen lungs, and that also encouraged them to get the boys involved. It started at their backyard pool in Rancho Mirage, and the triplets first joined a team in Miami at age 6.
The family settled in Alpharetta, Georgia, in 2008. As they moved around, swimming became a constant for the boys, a way for them to find new friends quickly in a new place.
Each developed in the sport at a different pace. Kevin said he was the top Litherland from age 10 to 14, noting Mick had been best until 9 or 10, and Jay has been gradually getting better.
Their dad remembers a Junior Olympic meet in the 10-and-under category when his kids won every event but the breaststroke. As high school seniors, they were involved in seven wins at the state meet, including three of the legs on victorious freestyle and medley relays. In the state-record-setting medley, Kevin swam backstroke, Jay breaststroke and Mick butterfly.
Andrew says Kevin is the straightforward one, who always says what he is thinking. He calls Mick the most mature, the one who drives the others around and handles travel logistics. Jay is the happy-go-lucky one, who goes with the flow.
“They seem to be at peace with each other around,” Andrew said.
That was never more evident than in the smiles on their faces as first Kevin and then Mick hugged his sopping wet sibling. They were brothers in arms.
Philip Hersh, who has covered 17 Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.