At the U.S. Olympic Trials, first is first, second is first, and third is last. For the country’s elite, there’s one goal at that meet: making the Olympic Team. Everything else is either gravy or heartache.
Seeing swim stars and Olympic champions like Cullen Jones, Matt Grevers and Tyler Clary touching third hit me in my chest. The pain was physical, sharp pinpricks, dissipating to a dull ache that passed through my body. The experience, simply witnessing it as a fan, was not fun. I understand it intimately.
Over three Olympic Trials, I was “last” twice. And by last, I mean third.
In 1992, I got third in the 200 free final with a 1:49.05. I turned in a 1:48.83 in the prelims (we didn’t do semis back then). If I’d swum the same time at night, I would’ve added another individual event to my schedule behind the 100 and 200 butterfly. Getting on the 4×200 free relay, however, softened the blow.
In 1996, I got third in the 200 butterfly. After 14 consecutive national titles in the event, the shock was so abrupt that I felt numb sitting there in the water. My energy drained as I hung from the lane line, the water turning chilly and cold. I remember thinking, ‘How am I going to climb out of the pool?’ I had no strength. Then it occurred to me, Why am I not crying? If you ever deserved a good cry, touching the wall third at Olympic Trials is it. I wanted to cry. I wanted to feel something other than the complete lack of my own life-force. Tears would’ve been a welcome release. I felt nothing. The end of that swim, and my career, felt like death.
Happy, joyous memories feel soft, almost intangible, like a beautiful impressionistic painting. Painful memories have rough edges and grooves. Recall is easy, the feeling of discomfort immediate.
20 years later, I remember that third place US Olympic Trials finish more acutely than winning Olympic gold, but here’s the weird part, the twist: I appreciate that third place finish, the one that ended my career, almost more-so than the swims that put me on the Olympic Team 4 years earlier.
Within days I felt relief–deep lung-emptying, mind relaxing relief. I’d mortgaged my life to the sport. I was ok with that. It was my choice, and I had done the work. I was ready for it to end…even if I didn’t realize it at the time. The long taper, as some call retirement, is a pleasant experience once you lean into it.
After experiencing that anvil-on-the-chest, heartbreaking disappointment, nothing scared me. I knew I could handle failure and be ok. Being comfortable and so intimate with the experience of failure was freeing. Since then I’ve never worried about failure, and it has allowed me to rush out and drink up the world with so many great experiences.
Now, many years later, I love that I have experienced every facet of the sport. Winning? Frankly, that’s easy. Training goes well, taper is hit spot-on, and everything falls into place. When you’re on, in the flow, everything is effortless. When you’re off and work is harder and sluggish and painful, you muddle through still giving it everything you’ve got. Swimming, as we all know, is an unforgiving sport. Sometimes you struggle, even torture yourself mentally and physically only to fall short. If that isn’t enough, you then deal with the guilt of letting everyone down that has supported you. Until my last Olympic Trials, I didn’t fully understand that experience. I witnessed it watching my teammates and competition, but I didn’t know the heartache. After the ’96 Trials I had a deep compassion and empathy for my peers and for everyone that invests so much of their life in this sport.