OMAHA, Neb. – Last month, Eric Shanteau labeled the 2004 U.S. Olympic Swim Trials "the most devastating experience of my life."
Taken on its face, that's a big statement. Now factor in that Shanteau was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 and lost a testicle to the disease. Now you begin to understand how cruel this competition can be.
Worse than cancer? At least to one survivor.
The trials are the world's most exhilarating sporting event for the men and women who finish second. It is the world's most excruciating sporting event for those who finish third.
The top two go to the Olympics, realizing an incredibly lofty goal and earning a lifetime of memories. The third-place finishers, after training endless hours year after year, go back to anonymity. Some of them might be third best in the world in their event, but that isn't good enough to make the Olympic team.
Often the vast difference between agony and ecstasy boils down to the smallest unit of time. Fates are decided by fractions of seconds, an almost unfair blink of an eye.
In 2004, Shanteau missed the Olympic team by .99 seconds in the 400-meter individual medley and by .34 seconds in the 200 IM. A slightly better turn here or a slightly stronger finish there marked the difference between going to Athens and going home. That's the tyranny of the stopwatch.
"The initial reaction was anger," Shanteau said, recalling being out-touched in the 200 IM. "I remember walking down that deck being very frustrated. You see a lifelong goal slip out of your fingers in the last five meters and it's brutal.
"It was very, very hard. I didn't want anything to do with the sport for about seven weeks after. Finishing third at the trials, you might as well get last."
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There was, eventually, a happy-ever-after conclusion for Shanteau. He came back in 2008 and made the team in the 200 breaststroke, beating Scott Usher by .64 seconds for that coveted second-place spot. Then he survived his cancer scare and has returned as a strong candidate to make the team this week as the trials get underway Monday in Omaha.
But even now, he can feel the sting of '04.
"It shaped me and molded me as an athlete," Shanteau said. "It probably still does. Hit your finish right – things like that stay with you."
If only we could write a similar ending for Hayley McGregory. If anyone has earned time on the therapist's couch after an Olympic trials, it's McGregory.
In 2004, McGregory finished third in both the 100 and 200 backstrokes. Then in '08 she came back and finished third in both events again.
Four swims. Four thirds. Total time separating her from an Olympic experience: 2.22 seconds.
The worst was the 100 back in '08. McGregory set a world record in the preliminaries that afternoon, touching in 59.15 seconds to break Natalie Coughlin's mark by .06 seconds. In the next heat, Coughlin reclaimed the record with a 59.03.
Then at night, Coughlin lowered her record yet again to 58.97 while Margaret Hoelzer snuck into second at 59.21. Poor McGregory was .21 seconds behind.
She went from fastest in the world to third in America in a few hours – and a seat on the couch when the Games began. In Beijing, Coughlin won gold and Hoelzer won bronze. If not for a two-tenths twitch of time in Omaha, it would in all likelihood have been McGregory on the medals stand waving to an international audience.
Some sense of humor the swimming gods have, isn't it?
"It's awful," Coughlin said. "Awful. I hate trails. It's a very stressful meet. There's eight people in that final, and only two people can make it. You've trained pretty much your entire life for that 58 seconds."
[Elite Athlete Workouts video: Natalie Coughlin's final prep for London]
For many years, countries could take three swimmers in every event to the Olympics – as is currently the case in track. That was curtailed to two in part to add a little diversity to the medals podium. Seems there was too much red, white and blue for some international tastes.
So making the American team became that much tougher. And if you're not on the team, you're just another man or woman with chlorine-damaged hair.
That's just the way it is in our sporting culture, where even in the Michael Phelps era swimming doesn't move the needle very far with mainstream fans. We know the names of bad backup quarterbacks on college football teams, but we don't know the third-fastest 100 butterflyer in the nation – even if he's manifestly more accomplished in his sport.
Make the Olympics, and your lifetime résumé has changed. You are, once and forever, an Olympian. It will be mentioned every time you're introduced to people – or will come up in conversation shortly thereafter.
If you're a third-place finisher here, the Games will go on without you. And that's just cruel.
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