Rex Tullius (BABA '10, MCM '15) made peace with himself that his swimming career was over after not qualifying at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. He was only 25 years old at the time, but the former Gator standout could walk away knowing he had given his all.
Little did he know four years later his Olympic dream would come true. Tullius represented the U.S. Virgin Islands in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, culminating a wild and serendipitous journey that has literally taken him all over the world.
“It was everything I thought it would be and more,” said Tullius, 29. “It was totally surreal, like it almost didn't happen.”
After failing to qualify for the 2012 Summer Games, Tullius believed his competitive swimming career was over and stopped training. He joined Legacy Development VI, a real estate development company in the Virgin Islands, and focused on his new career.
Three years later, Virgin Islands coaches approached Tullius about returning to the pool. Unbeknownst to Tullius, he had met the requirements to compete internationally for the Virgin Islands by living there for three-plus years, acquiring a driver's license and no longer competing for the United States. Suddenly his Olympic dream was rekindled.
With approximately a year to prepare for the Olympics, Tullius shifted his training into overdrive. From Nov. 2015 until his Olympic appearance, Tullius trained or competed in Denver, Los Angeles, Singapore, Jacksonville, Austin, Indianapolis, Fort Lauderdale and Paraguay. Tullius said he could not have devoted the proper time to training without the support of Legacy Development, which provided him an accommodating work schedule.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Tullius, “and they gave me the flexibility to pursue a lifelong dream.”
That dream became a reality on Aug. 5 when Tullius entered Rio’s Maracana Stadium with his U.S. Virgin Islands contingent for the Olympics’ opening ceremony. Many swimmers forgo the opening ceremony because swimming is one of the first events to begin at the Olympics. But with his event, the 200-meter backstroke, not slated to begin until Aug. 10, Tullius was not going to miss it.
“There was a lot of standing and waiting, which can get tiresome,” said Tullius, whose U.S. Virgin Islands team was one of the last to be introduced, “but I'm happy I did it. When I finally walked out there, it really hit me. It was larger than life.”
Considering his lengthy absence from competitive swimming—combined with his abbreviated training schedule—Tullius said he was realistic about how he’d perform. Ultimately, he finished 20th in the 200 backstroke in a time of 1 minute, 59.14 seconds. His time was .02 seconds faster than his performance at the 2012 Olympic Trials when he was four years younger and training full-time.
“I wasn’t very happy finishing 20th,”said Tullius, “but considering my situation, I can’t complain.”
Tullius’ consolation prize, however, was spectacular—spending the next 11 days in the Olympic Village. He reconnected with U.S. swimmers, including former Spruce Creek High School (Orange, Fla.) teammate Ryan Lochte, spotted tennis stars Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Serena and Venus Williams, and the U.S. men’s basketball team, and got to rub shoulders with 12,000 world-class athletes from around the globe.
“Being in the Olympic Village was electric,” Tullius said. “It’s hard to describe that feeling.”
Tullius said he isn’t ruling out a run at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, but his current focus is making up for lost time at work—and savoring Olympic memories.