Clark Burckle earns his place in London with last-second stretch

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

OMAHA, Neb. – My personal scorecard Friday night at the CenturyLink Center:

Two sportswriter friends shoved out of their chairs.

One crying wife.

One rewarding interview.

That was the reaction after longtime family friend Clark Burckle somehow, some way, hit the wall eight one-hundredths of a second ahead of Eric Shanteau to finish second in the 200-meter breaststroke at the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials.

At the trials, second place is a winner. Top two go to the Olympics.

So when Burckle improbably surged from fourth to second in the closing meters, earning his London ticket with a frantic, quick-twitch final stroke to out-touch Olympic veteran Shanteau, I admittedly made a mockery of sportswriter protocol. When the scoreboard flashed what the naked eye did not see – Burckle 2, Shanteau 3 – I reflexively put my left hand on the shoulder of Chris Harry of and my right hand on the shoulder of Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer, and shoved them both sideways.

I'll chalk it up to euphoric shock. Fortunately, both gentlemen are good friends. Hopefully they won't turn me in to the Society of Professional Journalists.

After blurting out a congratulatory tweet that I'd written before the race and nearly erased when it looked bleak late, I bounced down to the interview area. While waiting for Clark, I placed a quick call to my wife, Tricia, back home in Louisville, Ky. She answered the phone in tears.

Tricia taught Clark in fifth grade. Before that, she taught Clark's older sister, 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Caroline, who used to come to our house for tutoring as well. And this past school year, she taught the youngest Burckle, Collin.

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My three kids all swim and all look at Caroline and Clark like local rock stars. Our daughter, Brooke, has a swim cap signed by the two framed in her bedroom.

But it goes beyond that. My wife swam for the Lakeside Seahawks with the Burckles' father, Chris. And I've spent hours on aluminum bleachers at many a swim meet with the Burckles' mother, Jill, watching our kids compete.

So there is some history here. That's why objectivity went out the window at the fantastic finish.

"Clark was the same kind of student as he is a swimmer," my wife said after she stopped crying. "A hard, hard, hard worker. He put his mind to it and got it done."

He put his mind to it at the very last instant Friday night, throwing a shortened final stroke at the wall to get second behind surprise winner Scott Weltz. The 200m breast is a long race, but you can say Burckle earned his Olympic spot at both the very beginning and the very end.

His reaction time at the start was .62 seconds, fastest of anyone in the eight-man field and .12 faster than Shanteau. And then he had the quicker reflexes at the wall as well. In a race where the difference between euphoria and heartbreak came down to mere hundredths, he got the details right.

All of which was very fun to interview Clark about.

"I'm not a sprinter, but I've always had pretty good reaction time," he said. "And you saw me at Lakeside, you know I'm a competitor.

"I try to be chill and laid-back, but when it comes down to it I hate to lose. It doesn't manifest in my personality, but it's in my subconscious."

Hating to lose has helped make Clark a winner. He won the NCAA 200m breast in 2010 on the touch, then did it again here.

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In the stands, sister Caroline and mom Jill could hardly see the finish through their tears. Caroline, who is retired from swimming, sends Clark motivational texts and funny pictures – and she was instrumental in keeping him grounded coming into Omaha.

"About a week out, he told me, 'I feel terrible in the water,' " Caroline said. "I said, 'Don't worry about it. You're hitting your taper right.' Then he's kind of been in his own zone here. No news from Clark is good news. I wanted to let him do it because it's his time."

Clark finished seventh in the 100m breast to get his meet off to a good start, knowing that his big chance would be at the end of the week in the 200m. This was a plan four years in the making.

It began after 2008, when Clark finished fifth in the 200m breast at age 20. His parents, who own and operate a health club and an indoor soccer venue, encouraged him to stay in the sport as opposed to getting a job.

So Clark transferred from Florida to Arizona to finish his college career and then trained with the powerhouse Tucson Ford Dealers club. He tweaked his race program, moving away from the individual medleys and focusing on breaststroke, because Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte presented an impediment to London.

The hard, hard, hard worker studied tapes of Japanese breaststroking legend Kosuke Kitajima. He lost nearly 20 pounds, slimming down to 188, to improve his quickness.

"He prepared as well as anybody," Chris Burckle said. "Nobody prepared for a single race better than Clark."

He got international experience in 2011 at the World University Games, then had a big swim to win a silver medal at the Pan Am Games. He was zeroing in on this event, knowing that Shanteau and fellow Olympic veteran Brendan Hansen would be very hard to beat.

Clark entered this meet seeded third in the event, but just barely behind those two. Through the prelims and semifinals, Clark was the fastest qualifier – but he admitted being nervous Friday during the long wait to swim.

With Hansen on one side and Shanteau on the other, the race unfolded as most everyone predicted – a three-way shootout, like the scene from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

In the middle of the pool, Clark had a lead of .12 on Hansen after 100 meters and .57 on Shanteau. Nobody was paying much attention to Weltz over in Lane 6.

But Weltz made a big move to steal the race in the back half, and Clark's cause appeared hopeless in the final 25 meters. Hansen and Shanteau were both ahead of him for the vital second spot. Muscles burning, Clark dug in.

"I was gritting my teeth," he said. "I saw Brendan and Eric out of my peripheral vision."

A year ago, Clark told his dad, "It will come down to the last 15 meters. I just have to get down and finish."

Pretty good prognostication.

Hansen faltered late. But up to the very last stroke, Clark was behind Shanteau. In a rhythm stroke where hurrying doesn't always help, he shortened his final thrust enough to hit the wall in the nick of time.

A guy who trained with Olympians at Florida and Arizona and lived with an Olympian for a sister finally earned his own place.

"I wanted, at the end of the day, to call myself part of that group," Clark said, flashing the famously toothy Burckle grin.

As Chris, Jill and Caroline celebrated in the stands, little brother Collin somehow darted around the arena and down the stairs to poolside to meet Clark.

"Good job, buddy," Collin told him.

"Thanks," Clark said. "I love you."

There were celebrations back home in Louisville, too. And, yeah, one in the media seating of the CenturyLink Center as well.

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