The Emotional Trials of Olympic Trials, A Reflection

Photo Courtesy: ISL/Mike Lewis

I’ve now been to three Olympic Trials meets as an athlete and two as a spectator. The first two, I only noticed the people who made the team– my heroes. The third I left heartbroken and – as life goes – I started noticing the heartbreaks in every finals heat. Two make the Olympics, six are left home (in all events other than the 100/200 free). But often the U.S. Olympic Trials finals are faster than the Olympic finals. “It’s so cruel,” I recall my dad saying after I missed qualifying in 2012. It’s an objective clock deciding– but I suppose time can be cruel. This extra year tacked onto preparing for the Olympic Trials due to COVID has allowed teen swimmers crucial months to develop and qualify for an Olympic team they could not have made in 2020. It wasn’t kind to the older athletes who were already beginning to feel creaky last year.

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One commentator said, “You walk up the stairs from the ready room to the pool, hoping you’ll descend the stairs afterward as an Olympian.” But so many stumble down those stairs with wobbly, worn-out legs, wondering what they could have done to go .4 or .04 faster. Missing a dream by a fingernail. But mulling it over repeatedly will not change the result. It’s a pill that goes down slowly and painfully — a true grieving process. For some it’s the end of a career that began unknowingly in a neighborhood pool at age 6. It builds without the athlete even realizing it. The most elite reach a rung of the ladder high enough to call swimming their profession. But swimmers treat it like a profession far before then. You give up traveling/studying abroad, vacations with friends, family weddings, risky activities (like skiing), study time and sleep ins– all for the sake of swimming.

So it’s understandable that when a swimmer takes third or fourth or fifth in an event they thought could earn them an Olympic spot, they’re emotionally destroyed. All that time. All those meters. All that sweat. All that…and it didn’t happen. But it was never guaranteed.

I cried on my couch when Madisyn Cox missed the team by .02. She looked stunned. Then fellow crazy-talented 200 IMer Melanie Margalis — who also missed making the team this summer — cradled Cox’s head and gave her some words to begin the process of stitching the pieces of her heart back together. I cried harder. That’s what this meet is about to me, as I get older and have the heartbreak radar on. So many special people. A competitor — also mourning her own missed Olympic dream — has the grace to take Cox by the hand/head and say “we’ll be OK”. And they will be OK. My husband can attest to that. All the other nearly-Olympians can too. Sometimes it takes months or years to see what you actually did in the sport, instead of that one thing you didn’t do. And I learned from doing swim clinics alongside my Olympian husband, that lots of people will just assume you were an Olympian anyway. And you just roll with it. 🙂

If you’ve tasted the Olympics before, but failed to make it again– that’s a hurt I don’t know. But I’ve seen the pressure my husband carried with him in 2016 — as a defending Olympic champion — and it didn’t look fun. Matt recently gave an interview and noted the importance of finding joy in the sport. After finishing sixth in his 100 back final last week, Matt stopped before exiting the arena to take it all in. And the crowd around the tunnel stood up and gave him the sweetest farewell ovation. I wasn’t crying about his sixth place finish because I knew he would be OK. But seeing that act of appreciation for Matty got the tears flowing. For him too.

Matt related Olympic Trials to a wedding. We get to see so many people we love in one place around a sport we love. And when you’re acquainted with someone through sport, you don’t just know them. You know them. You’ve been through stuff together– simultaneously gritting teeth as you battle beside a teammate during a practice that only the coaches will see. But that’s where stripes are earned and bonds are deepened through trying shared experiences. And those are what last. The buzz of making the Olympic team doesn’t last. Even the glory that comes from winning an Olympic medal will fade.

What I want the heartbroken to know is: as much as performances matter for sponsorships and headlines and mix zone attention, that’s not why your people love you. And if you’re feeling empty and less-than, make a list of the exceptional people you’ve met through swimming in your head. Maybe the sport didn’t return your incredible efforts with a spot on the Olympic team but geez, the comforting hands of the friends you battled beside are what it’s all about. They’re there as you grieve your missed dream and as you realize through the years, they — those people — are the purist, most refined gold that could come from a sport.

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Ed Welch
Ed Welch
2 years ago

Thank you Annie. You were the best person to write this – Matt a close second.

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