Tears of Joy and Heartbreak: The Brutal Reality of Olympic Trials Emotions

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Olivia Smoliga and Kathleen Baker celebrate qualifying for the 2016 Olympic team in the women's 100 back -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Tears of Joy and Heartbreak: The Brutal Reality of Olympic Trials Emotions

When swimmers have one meet circled on their calendar for years, one chance to make their hopes and dreams come true, emotions might spill over. At the Olympic Trials, you will see screams of jubilation and tears of crushing disappointment. Margins of hundredths of a second can determine the difference between earning the title “Olympian” or not, and while any success in the leadup is great, it’s hard to take solace in quality training or even an otherwise-good performance if the outcome does not lead to a spot at the Olympics.

The Olympic Trials is a swim meet intensified, with flashing lights and a huge arena more than triple the capacity of any permanent aquatics facility in the country, and the stakes are ratcheted up far beyond any other qualifying meet. This is a once-every-four-years spectacle (in this case, five years), and by the time the next Olympic window rolls around, a swimmer may have moved on completely from the sport. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of the Trials participants with a real shot to make the team, and that’s why emotions run so high.

Go to YouTube to find the highlights from previous Trials, specifically those involving a swimmer becoming a first-time Olympian. Take the women’s 100 back in 2016, for instance, when Olivia Smoliga and Kathleen Baker finished first and second, respectively, not a surprising outcome considering their swims in the earlier rounds of the event but still a notable one when the previous two Olympic gold medalists, Missy Franklin and Natalie Coughlin, finished at the back of the field. After they touched the wall, both Smoliga and Baker exploded in joy. Less than 10 seconds after finishing, Baker had jumped the lane line to hug Smoliga, and the two caught their breath while screaming and celebrating.

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Katie Meili and Lilly King after becoming first-time Olympians in the 100 breast at the 2016 Olympic Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

What you cannot find a video of is what happened a few minutes later beneath the arena, the reunions between these new Olympians and their teammates and coaches. Katie McLaughlin, Baker’s classmate at Cal, had just qualified for the 200 free final a few events before the 100 back, but she had gotten out of the warmup pool and returned to the mixed zone exit to hug Baker. And shortly after that, Baker also cut her warmdown short so she could be there to hug training partner and 100 breast Olympian Katie Meili after her big moment. The next day, Tom Shields finished second and qualified for the Olympic team in the 200 fly, and during an on-camera interview, then-Cal assistant Yuri Suguiyama walked up and wrapped Shields in a hug.

These are special moments, the pinnacle of a swimmer’s career so far. Few swimmers can contain their excitement upon qualifying for an Olympics, and only their coaches and teammates can know how much work they had put in to get to that point.

On the flip side, the disappointment of placing third is absolutely brutal. Each Trials brings swimmers wearing that same crestfallen, heartbroken face, knowing that they came so close to making it to the Games. Thinking back to 2016, several of those moments are seared into the memory of everyone in attendance. Maybe one day they will be able to look back on their journey to the Trials and be proud, but in the immediate aftermath, it’s just too raw. It’s impossible to look those swimmers in the eye and not feel for them and empathize with their devastation.

This week in Omaha, some really good swimmers are going to find themselves in that situation, in third or fourth place by a tiny margin and locked off the Olympic team. Regardless of any previous success such as world titles or world records, the results at Trials are the sole qualifier for Tokyo. We don’t know who will have to experience that heartbreak, but it’s inevitable. A third place finish does not mean the swimmer’s journey to the Trials was a failure—third at a meet like Olympic Trials is an amazing accomplishment by any measure—but that’s no consolation in the moment.

Take the clear-cut most competitive race of the week, the women’s 100 back. Six swimmers in the field have been under 59: Regan Smith, Baker, Smoliga, Rhyan White, Phoebe Bacon and Claire Curzan. All of those women will have other chances to make the team, and it’s conceivable that all of them do qualify in at least one event. But odds are, at least one ends up without a spot in Tokyo and likely at least two. And despite all the success each of these top contenders has had across various competitions, swimming success is still measured first and foremost by the Olympics

There’s a joke that the warmup pool is half chlorine and half tears, and it is spot on. For every moment of pure happiness, another swimmer feels the ultimate letdown. That’s a cruel reality of Olympic Trials.

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