Why 3rd Place at Olympic Trials is a Good Thing

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.

ONE

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.

TWO

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.

THREE

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.

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ArtVanDeLegh10
5 years ago

It isn’t a good thing.

swammer81
Reply to  ArtVanDeLegh10
5 years ago

I think what Mel is trying to say is that you can either see the glass as half empty or half full……..

ArtVanDeLegh10
Reply to  swammer81
5 years ago

I’m aware of what Mel is trying to say. Swimmers have a very small window. One third place might be a swimmers only shot. Very few have multiple chances to make an Olympic team.

I agree that you can look at just missing out on making an Olympic team in two ways, but it doesn’t matter to most because they only have one realistic shot.

Hina
5 years ago

These are mainly reasons for why finishing 3rd is a good thing if you’re near the retirement stage, for the younger swimmers these don’t really apply.

Cecelia
5 years ago

Very well said. Your message rings very true for the veteran stalwarts of Team USA- I’d add Kennedy and Leverenz to the list of thirds that were painful to watch.

But for the younger breakout swimmers who got third- Galat, Bayer, Bilquist, Conger in the butterflies- I think the close thirds or fourths are encouraging. All of them dropped significant time to get to where they ended up finishing. We are going to call upon these swimmers for 2017 Worlds and beyond, and now they have high-pressure experience under their belts. The Olympic Trials are just the beginning for some…

Hina
Reply to  Cecelia
5 years ago

Stubblefield as well.

Rajon
Reply to  Hina
5 years ago

Licon

Team America
5 years ago

Also Madison Kennedy?????

Years of Plain Suck
5 years ago

Very nice piece, Mel. I was in the stands in Indy that night 20 years ago cheering for Ray Carey who had the swim of his life to finish second. (That turned out to be the high point of his career: he didn’t make the finals in Atlanta.)

Your words made me think of this epigram from the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “It is disease that makes health pleasant, hunger that makes fullness good, and weariness that makes rest sweet.”

“Mind-relaxing relief”: that just might become my next SwimSwam moniker. 🙂

Dan
5 years ago

Mel, with all due respect, you placed third at Olympic trials after you already had a couple Olympic gold medals in your trophy case. That had to help ease the pain. Imagine if you had delayed the next chapter in your life by a couple years, and you missed the team with nothing to show for it.

Billabong
Reply to  Dan
5 years ago

The vast majority of swimmers fall into this category, finishing third, ninth, seventeenth and all the minor places in between. They all worked just as hard as the guy who came second. Like Mel they just dust themselves off and get on with the rest of their lives.

emoryswimmom2018
Reply to  Gold Medal Mel Stewart
5 years ago

I am only a swim mom and not a swimmer but I have always felt the lessons my children (both collegiate swimmers) learned from their years in the sport would assist them in all that they do going forward. Mel your words are are so true…I have always told my children (and still do) that it is not the how we handle our successes in life that make us strong and reveal who and what we are, but how we deal with our failures big or small. As I watched these trails, I was brought to tears more than once knowing how disappointing some of these swimmers were. It truly pained me to see them and hear their interviews. But… Read more »

Billy
5 years ago

Hey Mel, let’s get real here. Very few humans possessed the raw natural talent for swimming that you did. What did you swim the 200 fly going what, 4-90 minute training sessions a week at the JMY under Coach Miss Frankie? A 1:46? And this was before you even went off to Mercersburg and swim for JT.

It’s easy for you to say these things, after being on top of the swimming pyramid with World Records and World Championship and Olympic gold medals. What about the swimmers that get third and nothing better that have to go home and do something else?

BTW, whats Coach JT up to these days? I swam against him as an age grouper as a… Read more »

SwimEagle
Reply to  Gold Medal Mel Stewart
5 years ago

Glad to hear JT seems to be back on track. I worked a few of his camps at Mercersburg straight out of high school and he and the experience in general inspired me to become a coach.

Gramps
5 years ago

Mel, can you confirm or deny the story that JT’s response to the first one was… remember this feeling next time you want to take it easy.

P.s. chicks dig hardwood floors.

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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