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When swimmer Jay Litherland traveled to Japan with the rest of Team USA, it was not just to come to the Tokyo Olympics.

Litherland was also coming home.

The former University of Georgia swimmer won a silver medal in the men’s 400-meter individual medley on the first day of swimming finals at the Tokyo Games on Sunday. In addition to being cheered on by his teammates in the stands and Americans in the United States, there was probably some loud cheering at his grandparents’ home in Osaka.

“They’re having a watch party,” Litherland said.

The 25-year-old swimmer was born in Osaka to a Japanese mother and a father from New Zealand. Litherland lived in Japan for the first three years of his life and speaks both Japanese and English.

Being able to return to Japan to compete in the Olympics was a special moment for the American.

“It just means so much having my whole mom’s side cheering me on in Osaka,” he said.

Chase Kalisz (left) of the United States is congratulated by Jay Litherland of the United States after winning the men's 400-meter individual medley at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Sunday. | REUTERS
Chase Kalisz (left) of the United States is congratulated by Jay Litherland of the United States after winning the men’s 400-meter individual medley at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Sunday. | REUTERS

His family was going to watch him compete in person before COVID-19 forced organizers to ban fans from the majority of the Olympics.”

“They were supposed to be here in the crowd,” he said. “I felt their energy and power in that last 100 (meters). That brought me home.”

Litherland touched in 4 minutes 10.28 seconds in the 400 IM to finish second behind teammate Chase Kalisz, another University of Georgia product.

“To come here and be 1-2 with me and Chase feels good,” Litherland said. “I just want to thank Tokyo for hosting the Olympics. There was a lot of controversy but y’all killed it.”

Litherland was sixth in the freestyle leg on Sunday but a strong finish over the final 100 meters saw him make up enough ground to reach the second step of the podium. He pulled off a similar trick during the U.S. Olympic trials.

U.S. silver medallist Jay Litherland poses with his medal on the podium on Sunday after the final of the men's 400m individual medley swimming event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. | AFP-JIJI
U.S. silver medallist Jay Litherland poses with his medal on the podium on Sunday after the final of the men’s 400m individual medley swimming event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. | AFP-JIJI

“What we saw (today) happens all the time,” said Jack Bauerle, a U.S. swimming team assistant coach and the head coach at Georgia. “It’s unbelievable. You think he’s out at the Olympic trials, I actually stopped looking, I was watching Chase, and I happened to look down with 75 meters to go and it’s like ‘here we go again,’ and sure enough.

“He never thinks he’s out of a race.”

Litherland was all smiles after the race, displaying an affable nature that seems to be the norm for him.

“His temperament belies his competitiveness,” Bauerle said.

Before reaching the world’s highest stage, Litherland swam for the Bulldogs with his two brothers — the three are triplets.

“They were all good,” Bauerle said. “They were all three very talented. Chase may have just a little more of an ability to be good at all the strokes.”

He captured his first world championship medal in 2019, nearly chasing down Daiya Seto before settling for a silver medal in the 400 IM.

Coming home to Japan allowed him to get both Olympic silver to go along with it, and also a taste of home that he’d been craving.

“It’s been unreal,” Litherland said. “As soon as I got to Japan, all I’ve been doing is just eating. Japanese food is so good. I swear, I think I’ve gained four or five pounds since I got here.”

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