Florida Native Tullius Hopes To Do His Best Swimming For Virgin Islands Olympic Team
DAYTONA BEACH — Four years ago, Rex Tullius was convinced it was over. He had fought for a spot on the United States Olympic swimming team, but came up agonizingly short.
A decorated swimming career that spanned over a decade — including stints at Spruce Creek High and the University of Florida, and the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in 2008 and 2012 — had ended, his Olympic dream unfulfilled.
The real world beckoned. And so Tullius, ignoring the temptation to train another four years for what he knew could be another disappointment, decided it was time to get on with life.
He went out and got a job, oblivious that his burgeoning business career — as a property developer in the Caribbean — would mark not the end to his life as a world-class swimmer, but the start of a new chapter.
That chapter will culminate in Rio de Janeiro this summer, where Tullius will finally fulfill his Olympic dream, representing the U.S. Virgin Islands in the 2016 Olympics.
“It’s crazy,” said Tullius, who will swim the 100- and 200-meter backstroke in Rio. “If you had told me two years ago this would be happening, I would have laughed in your face.”
Currently training in Singapore, Tullius told his “crazy” story in a recent Skype interview, admitting the rekindling of his Olympic dream “still doesn’t feel real.”
That’s understandable, considering the twists of fate that have impacted his once dormant career.
Soon after earning his master’s degree in construction management at UF, Tullius went to work for a development company and was transferred to St. John.
Once on the island, he worked to establish himself professionally. Swimming — for years a primary focus of his life — was now simply a way to stay active.
But one day a St. Johnian friend, aware of Tullius’ swimming pedigree, suggested he look into the requirements to compete internationally for his island home, where he has lived since December, 2012.
Sure enough, Tullius met the requirements — he’d lived and worked on the island for more than three years, obtained a local driver’s license, and ceased competing for the United States.
Before long, he was working himself back into competitive shape, training with his Virgin Islands swimming counterparts and quickly establishing himself as the fastest backstroker, not merely in the Virgin Islands, but all of the Caribbean and Central America.
In his return to international competition, he won both the 100- and 200-meter backstroke events at the Central America and Caribbean Swimming Championships in June, 2015, in Barbados, setting a meet record in the 100.
Two months later, he competed in the World Aquatics Championships in Kazan, Russia, a meet attended by former UF and Florida teammate Ryan Lochte. In Russia, Tullius recorded Virgin Islands records in both the 100 and 200 backstroke events.
With his competitive mojo restored — and his Olympic dream a reality, thanks to his status as the fastest Virgin Islands backstroker and having attained FINA “Olympic B” qualifying times — Tullius set his sights squarely on training for the Rio Olympics.
He ultimately landed in Singapore, where Singapore National Team coach Sergio Lopez, the former Jacksonville Bolles coach and Olympic medalist from Spain, has assembled a cadre of Olympic hopefuls for training, including University of Texas star Joseph Schooling of Singapore and American breast-stroker Kevin Cordes, who was the 2013 and 2014 NCAA Swimmer of the Year for the University of Arizona.
After his significant time away from swimming, Tullius said it was vital he find a program with world-class training partners like he had during his years in Gainesville.
“I’ve really only been training for 14 or 15 months; when I started I was nowhere close to where I’d been when I was in my top competitive shape,” Tullius said. “When I flew out here to Singapore, it was pretty apparent this was the best fit for me.
“I’ve been training (here) for six months now and it’s going great.”
Tullius said his employer — Kansas City-based Legacy Development, a consultant on the One Daytona project on International Speedway Boulevard — is sponsoring his efforts. He’s able to work in a limited capacity while training, and plans to return to the company’s USVI affiliate, Legacy Virgin Islands, after the Olympics. He said he considers St. John “home” and hopes to live there for as long as he can.
“I’m so lucky to work for a company like Legacy Development,” Tullius said. “The company is sponsoring me 100 percent. They’ve been so flexible; they said once the Olympics are over, just come back to work.”
Tullius is sensitive to the idea that some will say he qualified for the Olympics through a “loophole.”
His former Spruce Creek and Daytona Beach Swimming coach, Steve Lochte, said those charges are unfair, noting that the U.S. Olympic swimming trials are more competitive than the actual Olympics.
According to Steve Lochte, Tullius was clearly among the best in the world when he came up short in the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials, finishing fourth in the 200 backstroke.
Ryan Lochte and Aaron Piersol represented the U.S. in the event in Beijing, earning gold and silver, respectively. Based on his time at the trials, Tullius would have competed for a spot in the finals in Beijing had he made the U.S. team. Tullius placed sixth in the 200 backstroke at the 2012 trials.
“The United States takes two swimmers from each event and the difference usually comes down to tenths of a second,” Steve Lochte said. “So Rex was right there.
“It’s going to be a great experience for him, and I know I’ll be proud to see him there, knowing that his development years came through Daytona Beach Swimming.”
Tullius says he uses the “naysayers” as motivation to get him through his six- to seven-hour per day practices, which weren’t easy in his prime and less so at the age of 29, which is past the prime of most Olympic swimmers.
“It’s definitely a motivator,” Tullius said. “It’s really a two-way street. The faster I swim, the more I will shut (the naysayers) up and prove I deserve to be there.”
The training and preparation will intensify in the coming weeks. He will train in Fort Lauderdale later this month, and move to Paraguay for more preparation in July before heading to Rio for the most anticipated moment of his swimming career — an experience that once seemed out of reach.
“The amount of excitement I am feeling in anticipation of climbing onto the blocks in Rio at the 2016 Olympics can’t be described in words,” Tullius said. “It’s one of those few experiences a person can look forward to where almost every human emotion can be felt and decades worth of work can be put to the test.”