Commentary by Swimming World senior writer John Lohn
GILLETTE, New Jersey, October 15. SOME of the awards handed out at next month's edition of the Golden Goggle Awards will be predictable. The Female Athlete of the Year selection is simple. It's Missy Franklin. The Male Athlete of the Year choice also falls into the easy-to-pick category. It should be Michael Phelps.
Yet, some of the other honors to be handed out in New York City are not as clear cut, most notably the Perseverance Award. The criteria for this category is an athlete who has come back from adversity, retirement, sickness or injury, and there are four exceptional candidates on the ballot. Consider the names:
* Anthony Ervin wowed the sport by returning from retirement and re-establishing himself as one of the premier sprinters in the world. More than a decade after sharing the gold medal in the 50 freestyle at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Ervin was a significant factor in the medal chase at the London Games and proved himself faster than ever.
* During the past few years, Tyler Clary has emerged as one of the best all-around performers in the world. However, he was regularly overshadowed by the exploits of Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, including a finish behind those rivals in the 400 individual medley at the 2012 United States Olympic Trials. At the London Games, though, Clary broke through for the biggest triumph of his career, collecting the gold medal in the 200 backstroke.
* After narrowly missing out on an Olympic berth in 2008, Davis Tarwater walked away from the sport without the fulfillment of reaching the biggest stage. Eventually, he decided to resume his career, but again suffered a stinging experience when he barely missed an Olympic bid to the 2012 Games. Ultimately, however, Tarwater earned his Olympic chance when Michael Phelps withdrew from the 200 freestyle for London and a spot opened up for Tarwater. He took advantage of his chance by claiming a gold medal in the 800 freestyle relay, the reward for his strong leg during the preliminary heats.
Without question, the aforementioned threesome has demonstrated impressive levels of perseverance, and their nominations for Golden Goggle accolades are much deserved. Yet, there is a candidate who has demonstrated an even greater level of perseverance, and her ability to stay focused and determined should go recognized. The winner of the Perseverance Award has to be Jessica Hardy.
Anyone remotely familiar with the sport knows about Hardy's story. She qualified for the 2008 Olympic Games in several events, only to have her Olympic dream crushed (and that might be an understatement) by a positive doping test for Clenbuterol. It was ultimately proven that a supplement taken by Hardy contained Clenbuterol, although she was unaware of the banned substance's presence. For her positive test, Hardy served a one-year suspension, not to mention the constant gazes and questions of whether she was a victim or a cheater.
There are two camps on the Hardy case. On one side, she is supported by those who believe she was knocked off the tracks by something out of her control. The other side of the argument says athletes are fully responsible for what they take and she received a just sentence, with still more individuals never able to forgive Hardy for her positive test.
Fans of the sport are always going to maintain their opinions, but that's not the focus here. The bottom line is that Hardy paid a heavy price and has returned to the top of the swimming world, demonstrating great perseverance along the way. She has shown a great deal of character, moxie and dedication to get to where she wanted to be. Her trip was certainly a physical journey, as she needed to be in top form to race with the best in the world. It's her mental toughness which stands out the most, as she has risen from a devastating uppercut which left her on the canvas.
After the events of 2008, Hardy could have gone into a major spiral. She has discussed the depressing nature of her ordeal and the hurt she felt, but she persisted. She remained one of the elite 100 breaststrokers in the world and continued to be among the finest in the 50 freestyle and 100 freestyle. Even at the 2012 Olympic Trials, Hardy had to dig down deep and persevere.
A favorite to qualify for the London Games in the 100 breaststroke, Hardy was shut out of her prime event, finishing third behind Breeja Larson and Rebecca Soni. It was another tough setback in her career, but Hardy — behind a gutsy demeanor — kept fighting and qualified for the Olympics in the sprint-freestyle events. Finally, she had realized her dream.
“I still don't believe it really happened,” Hardy said at the Olympic Trials, after qualifying in the 100 freestyle. “I think I haven't processed my emotions yet. It's amazing. I'm on a different planet now, and I think that swim for me was 100 percent emotional. It was heart the whole time. It wasn't so much physical capacity as just staying calm and enjoying it. I think that's what made the difference.”
Yes, the Perseverance Award at the Golden Goggles features a stacked field of contenders, all deserving of their nomination. But Jessica Hardy's story is one of the best the sport has seen in a long time, a tale of an athlete devastated to a tale of joy and redemption.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn