While most college students are still curled up sleeping, Rex Tullius sends the first wave of ripples across the surface of Gainesville’s Dwight H. Hunter Pool.
Six days a week, the 25-year-old UF graduate student streamlines, kicks, pulls and flip-turns, cranking out about 200 laps in two hours. His goal? Competing in the 2012 Olympics.
With three days of weight training and extra afternoon practices two days each week, training is a full-time job.
But Tullius said he refuses to think of it like that. Practice is a relief from studying and working on projects for his master’s degree in building construction.
Mostly though, practice is the only way to ensure he gets a second shot at his Olympic dream.
Four years ago, Tullius found himself at his first U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb. After qualifying for the semifinals in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke, he shaved three seconds off his 200-meter time, landing him in fourth place — just two places and 3.39 seconds away from a spot on the Olympic team.
“Not making the team in 2008 left me hungry,” Tullius said. “It was definitely another motivational factor. I thought, ‘Wow. I’m fourth now, so what’s going to happen in 2012?’ You never know.”
At the U.S. Olympic Trials from June 25 to July 2 in Omaha, Tullius will again aim for a spot on the U.S. Team. A top-two finish in any of his signature events — 100-meter backstroke, 200-meter backstroke or 200-meter freestyle — will send him packing for the 2012 Summer Games in London.
It won’t be easy. He’ll be up against the University of Michigan’s Tyler Clary as well as former Gator and longtime friend Ryan Lochte.
But Ed Buckley, Tullius’ friend and business partner for peerFit, an online fitness tool founded in 2010, said he knows Tullius will be able to bring out his competitive side.
“He’s just this goofy, nice guy,” Buckley said. “But seeing him on the pool deck for the first time, he was so locked in and in the zone. Then, he races and he’s right back to his normal self. It’s cool to be able to see him flip that switch and do that.”
Tullius’ coach, 26-year-old Dustin Koch, likes Tullius’ chances if he can stay motivated and injury-free.
“He shows up to meets knowing he’s done more than anyone else in the pool and has had more individualized attention, and he feels good about being there,” Koch said.
Whenever he starts to lose motivation and feels like leaving the sport, his father tells him to take the weekend to think about his decision.
“Is the juice really worth the squeeze?” Tullius said. “I don’t want to quit and wonder, ‘What if?’”
He said the support he’s gained over the past four years from friends and family has helped him press on. Tullius’ friends already talk about booking their flights to watch him race in London.
“His goal is our goal,” Buckley said.
His parents, whom Tullius calls his biggest fans, continue to follow his eight-year journey to the Olympics one meet at a time. When they can’t cheer for him in person, Russel and Carmen Tullius and their three youngest sons huddle around the computer at their Port Orange home, where they watch live-streaming videos of swim meets.
In June, Tullius’ mother will join him again at the Olympic Trials. She is ready to relive the experience at the same arena where, four years ago, her son’s performance brought her to tears.
“If all the stars align, he’s going to be a tough competitor,” she said. “And you know what? Anything is possible. If anyone can do it, Rex can.”
In the past few years, Tullius has earned spots in international competitions in China, Mexico, Japan and Switzerland. He hopes to round off his world tour by participating in meets in Brazil, Spain, Italy and other countries.
But for now, only one place is on his mind: London.
Rex Tullius poses for a picture Monday afternoon in front of the Florida Pool.