Former Gophers swimmer Jillian Tyler is a 13-time All-American and will compete in her second Olympics at the end of the month.
But as the maple leaves tattooed on her arm suggest, Tyler isn’t as All-American as her titles.
The swimmer will compete for the Canadian national team in the 100-meter breaststroke and 4x100 medley relay in London.
Although her tattoos remind her of her home in Canada, Tyler said she chose to remain in Minnesota to train for the Olympics after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 2011.
“I fell in love with all of Minneapolis,” Tyler said. “I have a life here.”
Adopting Minnesota as her new home came with a price, though. Minnesota swimming and diving head coach Kelly Kremer became Tyler’s personal coach, but he cannot travel with the Canadian team to the Olympics.
While the coaching staff for the national team will oversee Tyler, the Olympian will mostly rely on herself.
Tyler has learned to be independent on the national and international stage since she decided to leave Canada for college.
“It’s a little difficult being from Canada training at an American university because Canada has an initiative to keep their best athletes in Canada,” Tyler said, “And given I am a person who has not done that, sometimes you don’t get the moral support you would want.”
Even with the Canadian coaching staff, Tyler said she still would prefer that her own coach train her.
“I have the best coach and the best support staff here,” Tyler said. “But it’s different making a Canadian national team than it is a U.S. national team, where Kelly could potentially be a coach and come with me on my trips.”
Kremer said Tyler’s first Olympics without her personal coach by her side were tough.
“It’s a lot easier for her to go through this without me there [in 2012] than it would have been in 2008, where I think it was a little bit more challenging,” Kremer said.
Tyler made the semifinal in the 100 breaststroke in 2008, but she said there are benefits of having a personal coach poolside.
“When you have your coach, you know that you have someone who’s looking out for your best interest and who really has a genuine investment in your success,” Tyler said. “It’s not always ideal going to the Olympic Games and having to kind of adjust to working under someone totally different.”
This year, with the experience of one Olympics, the two prepared for their long-distance training prior to her departure.
“I wrote a really detailed plan for her,” Kremer said. “With all the modern technology — the ability to text, email, Skype … I’ll have the ability to stay in close contact with Jill.”
“It’s not ideal,” Kremer said. “But it’s a lot easier when you’re dealing with an athlete like Jill.”
Tyler’s former teammate and good friend Megan Braun said Tyler won’t be at a disadvantage this Olympics with her coach a continent away.
“Kelly and Jill’s relationship has always been rock solid and very supportive no matter where Jill is in the world,” Braun said. “They might not be in the same country or in the same time zone, but they’re definitely on the same page.”
At 18, Tyler moved from Calgary, Alberta, to compete for the Gophers swimming and diving program.
Tyler’s father, Ron, said his daughter was ready to make the leap to the NCAA.
“Obviously as a parent, you’re going to be a little concerned,” Tyler said. “[With Kremer] you felt like you were sending your child … to a safe place.”
In Canada, sports are not emphasized in schools, so Tyler did most of her swimming through clubs. After a few years of commuting, her family moved from the small town of Didsbury, Alberta, to Calgary to be closer to Tyler’s club.
Besides the level of competition in the NCAA, her family’s sacrifices were another reason Tyler said she wanted to swim in the U.S.
“In Canada, you can’t get an athletic scholarship,” Tyler said. “I would love to give something back to my parents so that they wouldn’t have to pay for my college education, especially down in the States where it’s a lot more expensive.”
Both Tyler and her father said Kremer was genuine, a quality that influenced her decision to swim for the Gophers.
“He just was one of the few who struck me as really honest,” Tyler said. “I think that’s kind of hard to find sometimes, especially in the college process when everyone is trying to sell you their university.”
It didn’t take long for Kremer to become Tyler’s coach during and outside of collegiate competition. After her freshman year in 2008, Tyler was Big Ten champion in three events and runner-up in the 100 breaststroke at the NCAA championships.
That summer, she competed in her first Olympics in Beijing in the 100 breaststroke and placed 13th.
When Tyler came back from her Olympic experience, she admitted it took her some time to adjust.
“It’s a lot of emotions, it’s a lot of adrenaline and hormones that up until that point I’d never experienced,” Tyler said. “And then I come back here, and it was kind of like flatline.”
Once she did transition, Tyler made the most of her final three seasons with the Gophers. She won four consecutive 100 breaststroke Big Ten titles and captured her first NCAA title her senior year in the same event.
But Braun said Tyler knew she wanted another shot at the Olympics.
“It was always in her plan and her coach’s plan,” Braun said.
Despite her solid performance, Tyler left the 2008 Olympics disappointed.
“If I had swum the time I had in order to get into the semifinal … I actually would have made the final,” Tyler said. “I think that kind of added fuel to the fire for the next four years.”
At last year’s World Championships, Tyler placed seventh. Her goal for this Olympics is to improve on that result.
As for Kremer, he said he is just proud to have two Gophers swimming and diving team members — Kelci Bryant will dive for the U.S. — at the Olympics.
“Any time you have an athlete at that level, it’s good for the program,” Kremer said. “As an Olympic sport coach … I want to develop people that can ultimately participate in the Olympic Games, so for me it is quite gratifying.”
The 100 breaststroke final is July 30, and the 4x100 medley relay final is Aug. 4. After the Olympics, though, Tyler said she is considering retiring.
“I’m definitely going to take a break,” Tyler said. “It’s kind of the perfect time to just end a career, after the biggest thing for the sport, the Olympic Games.”
But Tyler said she is still improving and wants to stay in Minnesota. Her current visa is set to expire, so she is planning to apply for a training visa to stay in the U.S.
Whatever she decides in the long run, she said there is one part of swimming that will never change.
“I still love it,” Tyler said. “It’s never been a question of whether I still love it or not.”