Charles Hartley, a free-lance writer based in New Jersey, has written more than a thousand published sports articles. He earned Master’s degrees in Business Administration and Journalism. In addition, he was awarded his Bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University where he majored in English and Communications.
Does anyone really know what it feels like to be Madison Kennedy these past few weeks?
Last month at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, she finished third in the 50 meter freestyle event. This meant she did not qualify to swim in this race for the U.S. in next month’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She’s out even though she swam faster than 176 out of 179 swimmers who competed in the event and proved that she is in the top 8 women on earth in the 50 freestyle. She’s out because only the top two finishers quality for the U.S. team in each event.
One person who can relate to her plight is Jack Conger. Despite swimming faster than 80 other men – the nation’s elite — he will not represent his country in the men’s 200 meter butterfly because he placed third (though he has earned a spot to swim in the 800 free relay).
Kennedy and Conger are not alone. There is a long list of U.S. swimmers who finished in the dreaded third spot. Others included Leah Smith (200 freestyle), Stephanie Peacock (800 freestyle), Lisa Bratton (200 backstroke), Cullen Jones (100 freestyle), Matt Grevers (100 backstroke), and Josh Prenot (100 breaststroke).
Third place in the Olympic Swimming Trials – it’s an unpleasant place
It’s not where you want to finish. You were close to reaching your lifelong dream for which you have sacrificed huge parts of your childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. Yet were just not enough. You were almost there. You had it in your grasp.
But you’re out of the money.
For days and weeks and months and years afterward imagine how often these third place finishers think about how close they were to their dreams, re-playing in their minds the races that got them third. You can be they have thought to themselves had they done a cleaner flip turn, or shot off the start block just a half second faster, they believe they would got second. You can imagine them waking up in three weeks and watching the opening day of the Olympic Swimming events and saying to themselves “I could have been there. That could be me on that starting block. What happened? Why me? Why of all people did I have to be the one to finish third? Was waking up at4:30 in the morning for the past 10 years to practice swimming worth it? Everything I did these 10 years was focused on making it to the Olympics and I’m not going. In grade school, high school, and college it seemed that swimming practice consumed so much of my life. Was it worth it?”
Does anyone really know what this feels like to finish third except others who have finished third in these Trials? Does anyone really know how frustrating and disheartening this is? Does anyone know how many hours these people practiced, how much pain in their arms and shoulders and legs they swam through with grit, thinking about how if they did so they would have a better shot at making the Olympic team? Does anyone really understand the feelings they had when their alarm clocks went off in the middle of the winter at 4:30 am? Does anyone know how much they would have preferred to stay in bed for a few more hours like all other non-swimmers whose schedules weren’t so demanding and constant?
I have tremendous respect for swimmers. I know how it feels to practice early in the morning day after day. I know how many times my alarm went off and my first thought was that I wanted to stay in bed rather than swim laps, feel pain and strain, and be alone with my thoughts under water wondering why I was doing something so strenuous and mentally trying.
For those third place finishers in the trials, I feel sadness and empathy. All that work, all that time, all that pain, all that discipline, all that mental toughness – for years and years and years, so many years, so much swimming – and they won’t get to race in these events in the Olympics.
It’s something none of us except those who have finished third in these Trials will ever really understand. It is their burden to endure.
We should salute their efforts and talents and wish them well. In the next Olympic trials, we should root for them to finish first or second.
They deserve that.