The ecstasy of second and the agony of third

OMAHA, Neb. -- Welcome to the only sporting event in the world in which the happiest people are the ones who finish second.

Finish second at these U.S. Olympic swimming trials -- the fastest meet in the history of the sport -- and your ticket is punched to the Beijing Summer Games. That is the dream destination. Just getting yourself into the quadrennial five-ring circus is a lifetime accomplishment, something you can cherish in your memory and attach to your identity forever.

Finish third and you are an excellent swimmer who has just been dismissed to the dustbin of history. You are destined to watch the big show on television. You are left with regrets and recriminations about how close you came while coming up short. Better, perhaps, to finish 33rd than third.

"This is the toughest event in the world," Longhorn Aquatics coach Eddie Reese said.

The reason is the tiny time difference that results in an emotional chasm between second and third.

On one side of the chasm is Matt Grevers, a gentle 6-foot-8 giant who was the surprise runner-up in the 100-meter backstroke Tuesday night. When Grevers got out of the pool after that swim, he was mobbed by his crying, screaming family.

"It was too much for words," said Grevers' sister, Carolyn, a former swimmer at Kansas. "All you could do is hug."

On the other side of the chasm is Scott Spann, the third-place finisher in the 100 breaststroke Monday night. Spann swam the fastest race of his life, but he finished .17 seconds -- a mere twitch of time -- behind second-place finisher Mark Gangloff. He knows the devastation of almost.

Reese is Spann's coach. He reminded the 20-year-old Spann after that race how far he had come -- from almost off the radar to the forefront of his event, shaving more than two seconds off his best time in the past year.

"He couldn't have gone faster," Reese said.

Did the pep talk help?

"By [Tuesday], yeah," Reese said. "But it didn't do any good that night."

The tyrannical exclusivity of being an American Olympic swimmer ratchets up the stakes of these races. In the past, every country could send three swimmers in each individual event -- just as they can send three Olympians in track -- but times have changed (in no small part because the world wanted a little geographic diversity on the medals stand instead of three Yanks).

So now it's down to two, with the margin between Olympian and Anonymous Joe often brutally narrow. Some of those sent home could win a medal in China, if only they could go. The competition here is so fierce that in the case of Hayley McGregory, you can be a world-record holder one day and an Olympic washout the next.

In the Monday prelims of the women's 100 backstroke, McGregory broke Natalie Coughlin's world record in the event. In the next heat, Coughlin took it back, then lowered it again Tuesday night in the final.

Meanwhile, Margaret Hoelzer squeaked in .21 seconds ahead of McGregory for second. Just like that, McGregory had gone from being on top of the world to yesterday's news.

"It is a cruel meet," Coughlin said.

Tell Tara Kirk about it. On Tuesday night, Megan Jendrick reached the wall for second in the women's 100 breaststroke by the smallest of margins, one-hundredth of a second. But at least Kirk already had an Olympic experience in 2004 -- when she nipped Jendrick by .11 seconds for second place.

Jendrick said she thought a lot about Kirk during the four-year push to this meet. Now, she said, perhaps Kirk will spend four years thinking about her.

Grevers and his family will spend the rest of their lives thinking about Tuesday night, the night he reached the wall .18 seconds ahead of international veteran Ryan Lochte. Grevers normally wears contact lenses, so he was squinting to see the scoreboard to find out the result.

"I looked up and thought, 'Is it really?'" he said. "Then I looked at my parents, and they were going nuts."

Ed and Anja Grevers were born in the Netherlands and immigrated to America -- he in 1969, she four years later. Today they live in suburban Chicago, where he is a landscape architect and she is a swim coach. All three of their children swam collegiately, Matt at Northwestern.

After graduating from college in 2007, Grevers moved to Tucson to train. Because he's not in the Michael Phelps category of lucrative professional swimming, it's been a bit of a financial strain for the family. The strain became worth it Monday night.

"Can you believe it?" Anja was still saying an hour after the race. "Our boy made it!"

This was always the goal. At times, it seemed far away -- especially in the backstroke, an event he hadn't intensively trained for in so long that his previous best time came in 2005.

Some people suggested Grevers try to make the Olympics an easier way, via the Netherlands' national team. As a dual citizen, he'd qualify to swim for the Dutch.

No way. His nickname might be "Dutch," but Grevers is all American. This is a guy who signs every autograph thusly: "Matt Grevers, USA!"

Grevers has tried to make the American Olympic team before -- his first trials, in 2000, was Carolyn's last. In 2004, he finished sixth in the 100 back. This time around, his strong swim in the semifinals seeded him third heading into Monday night's final.

But swimming against world-record holder Aaron Peirsol, Lochte and top finals seed Randall Bal, Grevers was completely overshadowed. And then there was the suit: Grevers wore a TYR, in a meet (and a sport) that has been completely overtaken by swimmers in the Speedo LZR Racer suit. As others have defected to the new miracle suit, Grevers became TYR's literal poster boy: a six-story mural of the guy graces one of the downtown buildings here.

Yet none of the obstacles mattered when Grevers lunged for the wall. His long wingspan, which once caused trouble with his stroke, at last became his greatest ally. It probably was the difference between the ecstasy of second and the agony of third.

After all the exultation in the Grevers family, Anja finally asked the coach of another team, "What happened to Bal?"

"He croaked," came the sympathetic reply.

Bal faded to fourth. He is 27 years old -- quite possibly at the end of the line for his swimming career. He put in 8,000 yards of workouts a day, six days a week, three to four hours a day to be here.

The hard work got him here. But it couldn't get him to the wall fast enough to become an Olympian. If Monday night was it, the weight of being one-quarter of a second slower than Grevers had to be crushing.

Third-place finisher Lochte already earned a spot in Beijing in the 400 individual medley and will have other chances. But for Bal, who had looked so strong in the qualifying rounds, this was his one shot.

While the Grevers family joyfully tries to figure out how it will afford to go to China, Bal goes home.

Toughest event in the world.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.