by Tito Morales

LOS ANGELES, September 24. DIANA MUNZ was in a funk.

The United States’ most successful female distance swimmer over the past several years was two-thirds of the way through her Olympic Trials program, and she had little or nothing to show for it. She’d come up short in the 400 meter freestyle. She’d come up even shorter in the 200 meter freestyle. And now the 21-time national champion was in danger of not even earning a spot on the Athens-bound team.

There are several universal traits that go into the making of the elite athlete. There’s talent, dedication, and passion, of course — and also an innate ability not only to embrace the most difficult of challenges but to find a way to rise above them.

In a candid look back, Munz recently talked about the ups and downs of her Trials experience — and about what exactly it took for her to turn what was quickly becoming a disastrous situation into one of triumph.

Slow Out of the Gate

Munz admits that there was a tremendous amount of pressure on her to succeed in Long Beach, even before she ever caught her first glimpse of the Charter All Digital Aquatic Centre.

“I think one of the things that got to me most was all the expectations,” she says. “Everyone was saying, ‘Of course she’s going to make the team.’ ‘Of course, she’ll make it in the 400 and the 800 and possibly the 200…’ But going into it, I really tried not to let it bother me. I’d been through it all before.”

Munz’s first event of the Trials, the 400 meter freestyle, was scheduled for Thursday morning. She was the defending Olympic Games silver medalist, her P.R. going into the race was 4:07.07, and she was far and away the number one seed.

“I went into it with a totally positive attitude,” says Munz. “I thought I was going to do amazing. I’d been doing triples. I thought I’d done everything that I possibly could have done to get ready.”

Munz, though, wasn’t sharp in the preliminaries. She knew when she hit the wall second in her heat and looked up at the board to see her time, a 4:12.43, that it would be difficult to make it through to the evening finals. And, sure enough, her time placed her ninth. She missed out of advancing by 2/100’s of a second.

Fate intervened, however, when Lindsay Benko, who had qualified second, elected to pull out of the finals of the 400 to concentrate on the event that she'd determined would be her best chance for success in Athens, the 200 meter freestyle.

Munz, miraculously, was given new life.

And that evening, swimming in lane eight in the finals, Munz very nearly made the most of her second chance. Very, very nearly…

Munz improved upon her morning performance, dropping down to a 4:10.79, but, in the cruelest of twists, she finished third behind Kaitlin Sandeno and Kalyn Keller. Despite the rare do-over, Munz still missed out on making the team, this time by 1.02 seconds.

“It wasn’t there,” she reflects. “I basically had a bad race. My time was nowhere near what I thought it ever would have been. Coming off that morning swim and trying to get back into it at night — I just thought I swam the race poorly.”

The blow was devastating to the Chagrin Falls, Ohio, native, to say the least, and certainly not how she had envisioned the most important meet of her year unfolding.

But the veteran didn’t have much of an opportunity to gather herself together because she had much more swimming to do. The very next morning, in fact, Munz faced a very competitive 200 meter freestyle preliminary heat where she knew that if she performed to her capabilities she had an excellent chance of eventually earning one of the six coveted relay spots.

In 2003, it was Munz who had anchored the USA’s gold medal winning 4 x 200 meter freestyle relay team to a decisive victory at the World Championships in Barcelona. And she wanted nothing less than at least to give herself a chance to repeat the feat in Athens.

First, though, she had to make it through to the next round.

She mounted the blocks with a personal best of 2:00.62, but it was clear from the first length of the four-lap race that Munz had been unable to put her poor showing in the 400 completely out of her mind.

“Of course I was terribly disappointed,” Munz says. “I’d had a horrible race the night before. It was hard to come back the next day and try to swim a 200.”

She touched in 2:02.82, and winced in dismay as the final results were posted — her time placed her 18th.

Not only would she not be making the team in the 200 either, but she wouldn’t even be advancing to the semifinals.

The Ability to Rebound

Every athlete in every sport will, on occasion, falter. Michael Jordan missed his share of buzzer-beating shots. Barry Bonds sometimes strikes out when the game is in the balance. And John Elway’s patented fourth quarter drives would sometimes fall short.

Champions, though, have an uncanny ability of instantly righting themselves. They refuse to dwell on the negative. A bad workout is merely that — a bad workout. A terrible race only means that a better one is right around the corner. They treat poor performances as aberrations, and realize that the quicker they can put such things behind them the quicker they can atone for them.

Munz had reached a crossroads at the Trials. She could have obsessed about her failures, or she could have immediately turned her attention to righting the ship in her third and final event, the 800 meters freestyle. She chose to do the latter.

Munz credits her inner circle with helping her to regroup after her early setbacks.

“My whole family was there — my mom, my dad and my two sisters, and a couple of other people,” she says. “I think having them there was more helpful to me than not having them there. They knew how bad I had wanted it. Their attitude was, ‘Forget about it and move on.’”

Others at the Aquatic Centre gave her the same advice, including other competitors and even coaches who’d never spoken to her before.

“I had so much support from so many people,” says Munz. “That helped me a lot. I just think that support is huge — so huge. And that really helped, to realize that so many people wanted me to make the team.”

Munz had the entire weekend to recover, and her family made sure they took her out for enjoyable activities, such as trying out new restaurants, to get her mind completely off of what had transpired.

“We never talked about swimming,” Munz says.

While, yes, Munz would make trips to the pool to warm-up as part of her normal routine, she left quickly afterwards. There would be no finals to watch. She figured she would have all the time in the world to learn who had done what after she, herself, was finished competing.

And then, as Munz occupied her time until her next event, something important happened. Munz’s feelings of misfortune began to transform into feelings of resolve. Results of the 400 and 200 to the contrary, she knew that she had put in the work and was on the verge of reaping the rewards. She convinced herself that her best event was still ahead of her. She wasn’t facing a last chance; she was being given another great chance.

“At that point I was very mad at myself that I hadn’t made the team yet,” she admits. “I tried to forget about everything and really realize why I was swimming — to enjoy it, and have fun with it, and love it. And that’s what I needed to do…”

A Fresh Start

Monday morning represented the start of a new week for Munz, in more ways than one. Just as she had been seeded first in the 400 meter freestyle the week before, Munz mounted the blocks seeded first in the 800. This time, though, as soon as she hit the water she looked like a completely different swimmer.

“I just wanted to make it into the finals, because I really hadn’t done it in the entire meet,” she explains.

She did so easily, qualifying second behind Keller with a time of 8:33.21.

“I was pretty happy,” she says of her swim. “I didn’t think I had tried that hard, which is exactly what I wanted.”

Munz had yet another day to regain her competitive focus. And by the time Tuesday evening rolled around, she was as recommitted, confident and defiant as ever.

“When I went into that final, I was ready to swim,” she says. “There was nothing that was going to get in my way of doing it. I had had my little rest period. I went out there to have fun with swimming and racing.”

Munz, long known as a patient back-half swimmer, was in third place behind Keller and Brooke Bennett when her feet hit the wall at the 450 meter mark. But this time she was swimming with renewed confidence. First she passed Bennett, and then Keller — eventually touching the wall first in 8:26.06.

After all the heartache, she’d swum her way onto the team.

Over the course of just a few days, in fact, Munz had managed to turn around her meet so dramatically that her last 400 meters of her 800, 4:12.95, was just a half-second slower than her morning prelim of the 400 meters.

Five weeks later, the Munz resurrection was complete as she earned a bronze medal in the 800 meter freestyle Athens.

The Experience of a Lifetime

Yes, Diana Munz’s Olympic Trials saga is a reminder of how one should never ever give up. Perhaps even more importantly, though, it's a lesson in never losing sight of one’s underlying passions.

“There are many people, I’m sure, that should have made the Olympics but didn’t because of the emotional rollercoaster,” says Munz.

Munz is convinced, in fact, that many swimmers, when they’re faced with their most challenging obstacles, simply lose sight of the real reasons why they compete.

“I think that’s what a lot of people get mixed up in when they go to a big meet,” Munz explains. “Yes, they’ve trained their entire life for this one swim meet, but the reason why they started this sport is because they love to do it. And the reason why they’re at this level is because they have loved to do it.”

She encourages others to try not to lose sight of the big picture — no matter how dire circumstances may appear to be: “This (swimming) really is the experience of a lifetime…”

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