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By John Lohn
OMAHA, Nebraska, June 30. HEARTBREAK has been a hallmark of Jessica Hardy's career over the past several years. Just the other day, she narrowly missed an Olympic berth when she placed third in the 100 breaststroke, an event in which she was heavily favored to nail down a spot. Of course, that hiccup plays second fiddle to what Hardy endured four years ago at the Olympic Trials.
After qualifying for the Beijing Games in the 100 breaststroke and 50 freestyle, along with as a member of a pair of relays, Hardy was found to have failed a doping test for the use of Clenbuterol. Ultimately, she removed herself from the Olympic Team, then had to endure receiving a two-year ban for the failed drug test.
Eventually, it was found that Hardy's positive test was the result of a contaminated supplement she was taking, and her ban from the sport was reduced to one year. After that, she had to fight for Olympic inclusion, given that any athlete receiving a two-year ban is automatically blackballed from the Games. Yes, it's been a long road, but one with a happy ending.
On Saturday night, Hardy secured a pair of Olympic invitations with one swim. Besting a stacked field, Hardy took top honors in the 100 freestyle, her time of 53.96 the only mark under the 54-second barrier and putting Hardy on the 400 freestyle relay in London, too. More than anything, she was rewarded with what was taken away in 2008 — a trip to her lifelong goal.
Under the guidance of coach Dave Salo, Hardy has forged ahead, perhaps more than any other athlete at these Trials. Because of the legal hurdles she needed to clear and the emotional toll her ordeal took, Hardy deserves significant credit for the mental strength and determination she has exhibited. She easily could have left the sport and not fought back. That approach, however, wasn't on the table.
“I've been training hard and knew, physically, I could do it,” Hardy said. “Mentally, I had to stay calm. I love that race. That was all my heart right there. I can't put into words how excited I am and how awesome this is. I'm so happy.”
**One of the most surprising developments of these Olympic Trials arrived earlier in the week when Rebecca Soni, the heavy favorite, came up short of victory in the 100 breaststroke. While she still managed to secure an Olympic berth with a second-place finish, Soni no doubt became hungrier to prevail in her prime event, the 200 breaststroke.
When that opportunity arose, Soni devoured the competition. More, she once again put the world record on notice. For the past couple of years, Soni has repeatedly flirted with the global standard of 2:20.12, set at the height of the tech-suit era by Canada's Annamay Pierse in 2009. Saturday night, she was just more than a second off the pace, going 2:21.13 to obliterate the field.
The sport has been waiting for a few years for Soni to check into the 2:19 range, especially with the world record going so low during the tech-suit days and to an athlete who hasn't exactly lit the world on fire since textile was returned. Basically, a global standard for Soni would be a reward for her consistency in the event, and for her dominance.
As was the case with Australia's Leisel Jones from 2005-08, Soni has been largely unparalleled over the past few campaigns. Soni should be able to produce faster times in London with additional rest and preparation, a scary prospect. Included in that potential should be the first performance ever under 2:20.
**Following the morning preliminaries, Anthony Ervin joked he hoped he wasn't lucky when producing a time of 21.83 in the 50 freestyle. Well, it's clear Ervin is riding nothing but talent in the splash-and-dash, the proof arriving in a splendid performance of 21.74 during the semifinal round. Ervin's time is tied for the third-fastest in the world this year, equal to the effort James Magnussen unleashed at the Australian Olympic Trials in March.
While the 100 freestyle was shaky — at best — at these Trials, the 50 freestyle has been impressive. Aside from Ervin, Nathan Adrian and Josh Schneider popped strong times, tying in the semifinals in 21.81. Jimmy Feigen also ducked under the 22-second mark with a clocking of 21.89. Still, Ervin is the one turning heads, invoking memories of his gold-medal tie with Gary Hall Jr. in the 50 free at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
**Question of the Night: With the preliminaries of the women's 50 freestyle scheduled for the morning, what are the expectations for Dara Torres? How fast can she go? Will she qualify for a sixth Olympic Games?
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn