In Trenton, in the same neighborhood where Apple grew up, his former Edgewood high school coach Ben Johnson watched the 4x100 relay final at home with his family, including his son AyeJay, who grew up swimming with Apple.
As emotional as Johnson was watching the race, which started at 11:05 p.m. in Ohio — 12:05 p.m. Monday in Japan — he wasn’t making a big commotion.
“I’m not a screamer,” said Johnson, who led the push to get a billboard honoring Apple put up in Trenton before the Olympics. “I’ve coached my whole life. They can never hear you.”
Apple’s cousin, Joseph Blust, who was there at the start of Apple’s swimming career at Walnut Grove Swim Club, watched with a group of their friends from Edgewood High School.
“I actually cried a little bit,” Blust said. “I teared up. It was just so surreal because he’s been dreaming of this ever since I can remember.”
In Richmond, Va., where another of Apple’s former coaches, Chris Bushelman, now coaches, Bushelman and his family gathered around the TV as well.
“It was amazing,” Bushelman said. “It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever watched.”
Edgewood Athletic Director Larry Cox said his 13-year-old triplets Luke, Jake and Ryan stayed up well past their bedtime to watch the race.
“They were upstairs,” Cox said, “and they heard it was coming on, so they all came back out to the railing to watch it and everybody was jumping him down and cheering.”
At the same time, in Trenton, at the home of Apple’s parents, Doug and Allison, the eight or nine people watching cheered so hard they scared Zach’s dog Duke, who his parents are watching while he’s in Japan.
“We were just super excited and screaming,” Doug said.
Loving the pressure
A day earlier, on Sunday in Japan, the U.S. relay team posted the second-best qualifying time (3:11.33) behind Italy (3:10.29). Apple swam the final leg in 47.19 seconds.
“I think his first race was more nerve-wracking than his second,” Doug Apple said. “But once he swam and had a good swim in prelims. I felt a little bit better going into finals.”
In the finals, Apple again swam the anchor leg, and he posted the fastest time, finishing in 46.69 seconds. Caeleb Dressel swam the first leg in 47.26 seconds and was followed by Blake Pieroni (47.58) and Bowen Becker (47.44). Kyle Chalmers, of third-place Australia, was the only swimmer to complete a faster leg (46.44) than Apple.
After touching the wall, Apple turned back to look at the scoreboard, saw the times and splashed the water with both hands in celebration. He slapped hands with each of his three teammates and pumped his fist before getting out of the pool.
“It’s easy when these three guys are leading me out, giving me a lead,” Apple told reporters in Japan. “I love living in the pressure. It’s why we race — because we want to be in the pressure. That brings out the best in us. That’s what you saw there.”
The team finished the race in 3 minutes, 8.97 seconds. That was more than a second faster than second-place Italy (3:10.11). The world record (3:08.24) was set by a U.S. relay team at the Olympics in China in 2008.
“I felt good the whole way,” Dressel said. “I knew I had to get my hand on the wall first, get some clean water. Everyone did their job. It’s a relay for a reason. There’s four guys for a reason. It’s certainly not just me, and it’s certainly not just one guy. I wasn’t ever scared. The scariest part was my leg for myself because I had control over that. I knew they were going to get the job done. I wasn’t nervous at all, especially when (Apple) hit the water. I saw him break out and I knew it was over.”
Bushelman, who coached Apple with the Greater Miami Valley YMCA Wahoos, called Apple’s time incredible but worried about his start.
“When the relay changeover happens, the swimmer in the water touches the wall and the rule is a part of the body has to be still touching the blocks and Zach’s toes were still on the block. I think they said the differential between the touch and Zach’s toe leaving the block was like .05 seconds. It was almost as close as you can get.”
Once in the water, Apple extended his team’s lead.
“It was everything we practiced when he was younger,” Bushelman said. “We talked about the back half of those hundreds. He’s the king of it. He did a great job, and it was exhilarating to watch.”
Apple’s road to Olympic gold began in his backyard. The Apples have a pool. His dad said Zach learned to swim when he was 5 or 6.
However, there were few early indications of Apple’s talents. The road to Tokyo really started with Johnson’s swim team at the Walnut Grove Swim Club in Trenton.
Johnson started coaching the team because he swam in college and his son liked swimming. At the start, AyeJay was the only boy on the team. Johnson wanted a relay team, so he asked around among AyeJay’s friends. Zach was one of his best friends and lived one street away. Zach’s cousin, Blust, also lived close by. Zach was 7, and Blust was 8 when they joined the team.
“They were all friends,” Johnson said, “and it ended up being four or five boys, and they kind of started on that summer team. You can imagine a group of 5 or 6 or 7-year-old boys. They never shut up. They were all over the place. But when you told them to swim, they’d shut up. They were having a blast. We called them the Boys of Summer.”
Johnson continued coaching them with the Edgewood High School team. He admits Zach was not the best of the group early in his high school career, but he got faster and taller and qualified for the district meet as a sophomore.
In the fall of 2013, Bushelman met Apple, and that’s when his swimming career became more serious. Doug Apple credited Johnson for pushing Apple to find a year-round team and credited Bushelman for developing Apple and setting him up to be successful at the college level.
Bushelman, who was coaching the Wahoos and at Monroe High School then, saw Apple’s size — he was 6-1 or 6-2 at that point — and raw talent. Apple was already friends with some of the swimmers on the Wahoos. That helped convince him to join the team.
“That spring, toward the end of his sophomore year, he started training year round with us,” Bushelman said. “He fit like a round peg in a round hole, and he actually took that training group to a whole another level. I credit a lot of his success and the success of those athletes at that time to their friendship and to their drive together to be successful. I was happy to help facilitate that and kind of handle the swimming side and mental side of that and encourage them to reach for a higher level.”
Apple found that level as a senior, winning a state title in the 50 free in Canton, and reached new heights in college. He competed for three years at Auburn, where he was a five-time All-American, and then one season at Indiana, where he earned seven All-American honors in 2019.
With two victories by former Indiana swimmers on Sunday, the Hoosiers have produced 57 gold medals in the history of the program. Indiana head coach Ray Looze is an assistant coach for Team USA and said Apple swam an incredible last leg.
“Just dropping the hammer,” Looze told the Indy Star.
Apple’s work is not done in Tokyo. He also qualified in the 100-meter freestyle and will compete in the preliminaries on Tuesday. He also could race with the 4x200 free style relay and 4x100 medley relay teams later this week.
That didn’t stop Apple from enjoying the moment after winning the gold medal.
“We have a small group chat with our former teammates all together,” Blust said, “and we all were just talking during the race, and then Zach jumps in the chat and says, ‘Oh my gosh, we did it!’”
Bushelman sent Apple a text message that read, “Great swim. What a start. Bringing home the Gold!”
Zach talked to his parents after getting back to his room.
“He was good,” Doug said. “He was excited. He was glad to get the win for the USA. He’s kind of like most swimmers. There’s not a huge celebration. They’re all excited and happy, but they all have more work to do. It’s kind of back to business.”
Apple’s swimming schedule in Tokyo
Tuesday: 100 free, prelims, 6 a.m. on USA Network; 100 free semifinals, 9:30 p.m. on NBC; 4x200 free relay final, 11:20 p.m. on NBC.
Wednesday: 100 free, final, 10:35 p.m. on NBC.
Thursday: 4x100 medley relay, prelim, 8:30-8:45 p.m. on USA Network.
Friday: 4x100 medley relay, final, 10:35 p.m. on NBC.