In an exclusive interview, the Texas swimmer opens up for the first time about winning a gold medal at Rio and what happened that night with three teammates
Posted September 6th, 2016
Walking up the jet bridge and emerging inside the Austin airport, a busy place normally full of travelers and barbecue, Jack Conger was full of doubt.
The Texas swimmer should have been happy to be home on Aug. 19. And he was, to a point. But there was this nagging feeling that his journey to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro wasn’t over yet.
One night out with fellow swimmers Ryan Lochte, Gunnar Bentz and former Longhorn Jimmy Feigen changed everything.
“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to deal with this. I just want to be a normal kid,’ ” Conger told the American-Statesman on Tuesday. “I just remember thinking this is going to be dragged out for weeks.”
Conger should’ve come home a hero, having won a gold medal as part of the United States’ 800-meter freestyle relay team. Instead, the four swimmers were ridiculed nationally and painted as liars or, even uglier, as attention seekers fueled on white privilege in a country riddled with crime.
While national media initially lumped all four swimmers together, Conger and Bentz later were classified as “witnesses to a crime.”
All Conger believes he did wrong was drink too much and urinate in public. For that, he’s had to accept penalties from the U.S. Olympic Committee, the details of which are not yet publicly known. “I was pretty upset, and I do not agree in any way with those sanctions,” Conger said.
Whatever the USOC decides, it will not disrupt Conger’s eligibility or senior year at Texas.
Fines, public scorn or slaps on the wrist won’t change what Bridget Conger thinks about her son, who turns 22 later this month.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the person that he is,” Bridget Conger said by phone from Maryland. “The athlete that he is, the son that he is, the person, the friend, all of those things. He’s a wonderful person. I’m very, very proud.”
In his first interview since leaving Rio, Conger tells his version of events that night:
Let’s start with an easy topic. How glad are you to get back to a normal routine?
Yeah, as normal as it will get. I definitely couldn’t be more happy to get back into a normal routine. Just going to class, being around my best friends, the guys on the team, and I’m actually super excited to be able to lift, work on dry land and get back with the swim team here. It’s honestly been a huge blessing just to get away from the media and get away from the unnecessary attention that was brought.
When did you get back to Austin and start working out again?
I got back to Austin either (August) the 19th or 20th. I can’t remember. I went home for a weekend and swam once, and then starting swimming here the next Wednesday.
Swimming in your hometown pool and now here, does it feel different after everything you’ve been through?
You know, it did for the first few days. But the pool is honestly where I find my peace and harmony. It’s where nothing else really matters to me beside my goals and purpose for being there. It’s just about wanting to continue to get better every day. I don’t really think about any of the media, my problems — whether it’s school, family or friends — I’m there to swim.
Let’s talk about Rio. What were your expectations about being on the relay team? Could you be on any other events or just that one?
At a camp in Atlanta, there was a time trial. There were three relays that were put together, and that was to see if other guys could possibly be options besides the six in the 4×100-free relay. I was 48.9 (seconds). I think Michael (Phelps) was 48.5, and Michael was put on that relay at night. I had that opportunity where had I gone faster, I could have been put on it. But obviously, it didn’t go that way. I thought I could have helped us out a lot, but the coaches made the best decisions they could have. I have to respect that and follow them.
Tell me about the other relay, the 4×200-meter freestyle relay. You swam in the prelims, but not in the finals?
The 4×200 free relay was a little different. I definitely thought I had a really good shot to swim at night. I was definitely nervous and had pre-race jitters. I’m a big-time finals swimmer. I don’t think there’s been a time where I swam slower at finals. So I definitely knew the job I had to do was have the fastest split so I could swim at night. The coaches decided to go with Ryan, and that was something I had to live with and say, ‘Thank you for giving me the opportunity.’ And hopefully move on.
That sounds like a politically correct response. What were you really feeling inside?
I wanted to be on that relay. I definitely felt like I could have gone faster. We won either way. We won the relay, so I think me being on it would have just helped our time be a little faster. But I was disappointed. It brought a few tears to my eyes when I saw those guys standing on the podium and had to watch from the sidelines. It was really sad. I felt like I earned my spot and sort of proved myself through trials and camp of what I was capable of doing. But I had to respect the coaches. I was a rookie Olympian, so I didn’t have too much pull. And my coach wasn’t there. I didn’t have a coach there. It was hard to have a voice of reason, especially because I was a rookie and not a veteran.
Was this was the equivalent of you being a great wide receiver and the coach not playing you?
It would be a rookie wide receiver sort of leading a team in all-purpose yards and touchdowns, but the team going with the veteran guy because he’s played in the Super Bowl before.
That being said, for being part of the team, you do get a gold medal. You are considered an Olympic champion the rest of your life. That has to be a positive, right? Or do you not see it that way?
I see it as positive and negative. I don’t think it’s really sunk in that I’m an Olympic gold medalist. I know it’s hard for me to grasp that, because I wasn’t the one swimming at night and I wasn’t the one up on the podium listening to the national anthem. I was kind of sitting from the sideline, which is why I don’t play a team sport. I want the ball. I want to do it. So that was super hard for me. I don’t know if that will ever sink in, especially after this whole experience. But I’m only going to use that as fire and drive to make sure I’m not in that same situation in Tokyo in 2020, hopefully, if everything goes well. I think one of my goals, especially at trials in 2020, is to swim so fast that it leaves no doubt, so that it’s not even a question about my abilities. It’s about putting the blinders on and using this as a positive to add more fire, if that was even possible.
After the relay, how many days passed before the night in question?
The relay was the fourth day, and there are eight days of competition. So maybe five or so nights later. It’s probably posted somewhere online.
But you knew you weren’t going to be in any more events.
Yeah, I knew I was done swimming.
So why did you even stay in Rio? Why not just come home?
Well, you have to stay until the end of the meet. The earliest we could have left was (August) 14th. And I decided to stay for a few extra days and do all the sightseeing and experience Rio. Just to be honest, I just wanted to relax on the beach.
You were at Club France, and then what happened?
So we get to the club around 3 a.m. and I think we leave around 6 a.m. Myself, Ryan, Jimmy and Gunnar get into a cab. We stop so that Ryan can use the bathroom. We all get out so that Ryan can use the restroom, and all of us follow. We came back, and Ryan ripped an advertising poster or whatever off, and that’s when sort of the whole little corruption started. That’s when we tried to get into the cab and leave and the security guards wouldn’t let us. I guess that’s what they were at the gas station.
So Jimmy and I decide to walk away, and that’s when a guy pulled a gun on Ryan and Gunnar. And that’s when Gunnar said, ‘Hey, guys, come back. They’re cops.’ Jimmy and I came back and that’s when the guy pointed the gun at me and Jimmy. That’s sort of when the whole thing broke out. Eventually we got a translator over there. We could smooth things over, give them money for the poster and once we gave them the money, we were allowed to leave.
That kind of sums it up in a nutshell.
Since this all blew up, USA Today reported that photographers indicated there was no damage to the bathroom. Did you do anything in the bathroom?
No, I have no recollection of the bathroom. We didn’t step foot in there. Didn’t see it.
But you did urinate outside.
In your mind, that’s the only thing you did wrong?
Yes. Besides from having a little too much to drink — I probably shouldn’t have drank that much — I should also not have urinated outside. Aside from that, I didn’t do anything wrong.
Tell me about this poster. Some have called it a poster. Others have characterized it as a metal frame. What would you call it?
I’d call it blurry. I don’t even remember. I just know it was a poster with a metal frame, and (Lochte) ripped it off.
When you say that security people pulled a gun on you, tell me more. What does that mean?
He drew his gun and pointed it at me and Jimmy. He was yelling at us in Portuguese, but, of course, none of the four of us have experience in Portuguese so we didn’t know what they were saying. We needed a translator. But I was definitely scared for my life, and I was definitely worried, which is why I was pretty calm. Just put my hands up and put my head down. When he told me to sit down, I just sat down and didn’t say anything. I just tried to calm down as much as I could.
For the record, did either of these security guards ever put a gun to Lochte’s head?
Well, at one point, the gun was always pointed at one of our heads. At one point, it was pointed at my chest, my head. It was never touching us. It was from a distance. But it was definitely pointed in our general direction — our heads, our bodies, everything. It was never stuck and touching any of our heads.
Skipping ahead a little bit, you get back to the Olympic village, the surveillance video seems to show you guys acting like everything is cool. Was it?
No. The whole thing still isn’t really cool to me. It’s definitely a horrible experience, having a gun pointed at you. Just knowing there’s a thousand different thoughts running through your mind. I think it helped a little bit, helped us, that we were a little intoxicated to not be so scared. But Jimmy and I were talking in the car ride on the way back how terrifying that situation was and how we’d never want to be involved in anything like that again. But getting in the village, I was just trying to get in and out of there, so I can get something to eat and prepare for the team meeting we had in an hour or so.
So this whole night, no sleep?
No. I went back and slept for maybe 20 minutes before we had a team meeting.
It wasn’t too long after that Lochte is being interviewed by NBC’s Billy Bush and telling his tale. That’s when this thing goes nuclear. Did you know that he would do that and whether anything would happen?
I knew that if any of us went to the media, it would be a big deal. We were told not to talk to the media. But in the back of my head, I knew something would happen since Ryan talked to them. I don’t know why or any sort of that detail. I just know that he did.
When you say you were told not to talk to the media, who conveyed that message to you?
Our media guy, Scott, at USA Swimming said lay low and don’t talk to the media.
How did the USOC know anything happened at all?
I don’t know all of the details of that. When they found out what happened for whatever reason — I don’t know how or why — they told us to lay low.
The only point I’m making is that the four of you were told collectively to lay low, don’t talk to the media and then afterward, Lochte chose to go and do his thing?
Yes. Well, he hadn’t done (the Bush interview) yet, but we were still told to lay low either way. Just keep your heads down.
So at what point did you know this was a problem?
I knew this whole thing would be a little bit of an issue just because of someone like Ryan Lochte, who is one of the greatest Olympians of all time. It’s a news-breaking story that he gets robbed. I knew it looked horrible on Brazil and the USA. So I knew that some type of blow-back would happen, and I was just hoping it wouldn’t land in my lap. Obviously being involved how I was, I was going to feel some sort of blow-back.
When did cops come around?
Oh, I was never talked to by Rio police or questioned until I got on the plane and they pulled me off.
That’s your first interaction with the Rio police?
Correct. That was my first interaction.
How did that go? Were you already on the plane? Seated?
Yeah, we were already on the plane. Already seated. I was putting my stuff away, and I see a cop coming toward me. I knew what he was going to say and I just followed him.
What happened next?
They told us we were going to be questioned. I called my parents, told them what was happening. They said don’t say anything without a lawyer. Gunnar and I were in a different part of the airport than where the police station was. They tried to question us without legal representation, and we just sat there quiet. So we just waited until we had our lawyers present before we said anything, and we decided to regroup and go back to our hotel and talk privately. The next day was when we released our statements and gave them to Rio police.
You were never told you were under arrest?
No. I was never under arrest. It was unclear at first, but after my lawyer found out, both of our passports were taken as Gunnar and I were considered witnesses of a crime. Not criminals. Witnesses. I think at first, the media blew this whole thing up because it was a big story. But yeah, Gunnar and I were definitely witnesses and innocent in this whole thing.
So as this whole thing is unfolding, Lochte and Feigen have issues. What is USOC telling you and Gunnar?
Nothing really happened for a few days. Big storm. Media was calling Gunnar and I, and we weren’t answering. We were just laying low, and we thought everything was fine. People were sort of giving us looks and stuff like that, but nothing —
In the Olympic village?
No, we stayed in an apartment after the 14th. We moved off so we could be closer to the beaches and stuff like that. The whole thing just hit the fan whenever we got pulled off the plane.
Did you at any time believe you would never get home?
Definitely. I thought it would take a while. I thought I could be in some real trouble here. Then I started to realize I didn’t do anything wrong. I drank a little too much and I urinated behind a gas station. But neither of those things, I don’t really think you should be charged or go to jail for. That’s just my opinion.
You knew this was becoming a big deal. At what point were you given the green light to leave?
Gunnar and I woke up around 9 a.m. Around 11ish, we started the whole process of going to the police station where we were going to give our statements to police officers. That whole process finished around 6 p.m. It took an hour to sign documents and solidify things. There’s a lot of translation between English to Portuguese, so that took a lot of time. After that was all done, we left probably around 7:30. Gunnar and I were back sitting in the hotel waiting for our passports to be released, which took about an hour, maybe an hour-and-a-half. They released our passports, and Gunnar and I immediately went to the airport. Tried to duck our heads and avoid everything. Finally, when we got past security, it was home free.
So you get off the plane in Austin and walk into ABIA. What are you thinking now?
I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to deal with this.’ I just want to be a normal kid. I just remember thinking this is going to be dragged out for weeks. I’m going to have to release many statements or do this, do that. I just wanted the whole thing to be over with. But this thing takes time, and I understood that. It’s a little hard.
Did anything feel normal for a few days?
Everything still doesn’t feel normal. Weeks later, I’m sitting at the Statesman giving an interview about this. My last one. Maybe it’ll feel normal. Day by day, it feels normal getting into my routines and hanging out with my best friends.
Why do this interview at all? Why not just be quiet and let life go on? Do you need closure?
You know, I had my closure. I signed my agreement with USA Swimming and the USOC that declared my sanctions. So I signed that, and it was my closure to put an end to all this. I was pretty upset, and I do not agree in any way with those sanctions. But I thought it was best for myself, my country, my friends and family especially just to put an end to this, regardless whether I thought the consequences were fair or not.
I have my closure. I think this just kind of sums up the whole story and sums up everything from my relay experience to that night’s experience to the experience after to the experience now and how I move on from here.
Tell me about the tattoo. When did you get that?
Over a week ago. This is a tattoo I’ve dreamed about since I was a little kid, always getting it in color and putting it on my right arm. Regardless of whatever happened in Rio, that relay or not, that night or not, I earned this. This was something I’ve been dreaming about since I was a little kid. I was going to get it either way. That was something I earned.
When I say Tokyo in 2020, what do you think?
I’m excited. Four years, reset the clock. I definitely want to be representing my country at the Olympics again. I think it will definitely take a lot of hard work again. Lot of hard work and sacrifices and determination. That’s what I thought when I missed the team in London. So the fire’s back, everything’s back. I’m just ready to keep grinding out the day-to-day and do the sport and why I love it. Hopefully I get the chance to be there.
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email [email protected].