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Tyler Clary: Gold-Medalist Swimmer By Day, Self-Sustaining Botanist By Night

By Lisa Costantini | May 09, 2016, 6:11 p.m. (ET)

Tyler Clary poses at the NBC/United States Olympic Committee promotional shoot on Nov. 21, 2015 in West Hollywood, Calif.

Swimmers burn a lot of calories and — with the intense training schedules that Olympic swimmers have — that requires them to eat a lot of food. You would think that’s why Tyler Clary decided to learn how to build a greenhouse and start growing his own food. But the former computer science major chalked up his recent passion to him just being “a huge nerd.”

"Homemade mint chocolate chip milkshakes, using the mint from the greenhouse!" -Clary

His greenhouse in Charlotte, North Carolina — where he lives and trains — is where you can find the Olympic backstroke gold medalist when he’s not on the road competing in preparation for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. And he’ll probably have a homemade mint chocolate chip milkshake in hand — with the mint coming from his greenhouse, of course.

You built the greenhouse in your backyard a year ago. How did that come about?
I just had an interest in greenhouses and wanted to see if I could do it. I taught myself — I’m not even a college graduate! I love getting up in the morning and going out into my greenhouse: checking on everything, feeding my fish when I’m home. It’s fun.

What food are you growing?
I have basil, carrots, mini bell peppers, Italian peppers, serrano peppers, red onions, Brussels sprout, beets, oregano, rosemary, mint, chives, green beans, broccoli, squash, cucumbers, and then there are five different types of tomatoes and two different types of leafy greens.

What do you do with all that food?
I eat it. When I get back from traveling, there’s always food ready to be eaten. It’s nice. It’s specifically designed to meet the needs of my household. But anything I don’t eat I give to a neighbor or a teammate.

You also have an aquarium that has plants growing out of the top. What’s that about?
I was messing around online one day and happened to fall into the YouTube vortex and found a video about aquaponics. I thought it was super interesting, the idea of growing plants out of fish water.

How does aquaponics work?

In most aquaponics systems there is some sort of container (in which you grow from) and a fish tank. And the water that comes from the fish tank feeds the plants. It’s different from traditional gardening because any water that isn’t taken up by the roots as it’s falling through the soil is just lost to the water table. An aquaponics system is completely recirculating, so the only water you lose is to transpiration.

That sounds complicated!
Well, after learning a little bit more about how the systems worked, I thought I could apply my computer science background into aquaponics and make an automated greenhouse. Because I travel a lot, I needed something to run my greenhouse while I was gone. My system at home is running the entire greenhouse that I can access over my phone and check on whenever I’m gone. And it provides me with completely organic food right in my backyard.

How do you manage the upkeep of a greenhouse with your training and traveling schedule?
I don’t sleep. I am constantly thinking about my greenhouse. Thankfully I’ve set it up so it’s all internet accessible. The grand majority of the work is software and I can do that from anywhere. It makes it super easy to work on. Plus, not only does it force me to sit down, but it’s a nice respite from thinking about high-performance swimming all the time.

Is there anything your greenhouse can’t do?
Feed the fish that live in the system. But that’s going to be the next thing I make automated. I’m also working on an off grid package that will help it stay online for three or four days without power.

What is the best part about it all?

What I think is kind of the coolest part is that I’ve never put a drop of city water in it. It harvests rainwater, and everything that’s in that system has fallen from the sky.

Any plans to build on this in the future?
I built the greenhouse from the ground up, so I think it would be awesome down the line to sell them. I’ve already gotten four or five orders from people who want me to build a greenhouse for them. I’m really excited to do that after this summer and get a multitude of those online.

What’s your dream greenhouse?
It would be part of a house. Like my dream house would have an integrated greenhouse on it. I want to have two avocado trees, two lemon trees and some apple trees inside it. So it would be a big greenhouse that I could be completely subsistent off of what comes out of it.

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Tyler Clary