'I never thought ... I could win'

OMAHA, Neb. -- Happy as Jessica Hardy was to win a race at the Olympic swim trials Saturday night, there was still a restrained air about her, the sense of a firmly held leash on what understandably could be runaway emotions.

"If I let myself cry right now, I wouldn't stop," she said to a couple of reporters after stepping off the dais where she'd just conducted a news conference after being named to the U.S. team in the 100-meter freestyle event. Perhaps after she's done with the 50 free this weekend, she said, she'll cut loose a little.

Hardy, 25, has been one of the fastest swimmers in the world for a while now, but she's learned through excruciating experience that there are times she needs to gear down. Life seldom operates on a sprinter's timetable, and right about this time four years ago, she was plunged into an extended period of hurry-up-and-wait.

We won't rehash the entire chronology of her passage through the looking glass, but in brief: A positive test for clenbuterol knocked her off the 2008 Olympic team. She proved to the satisfaction of an arbitration panel that the substance had entered her system inadvertently through a contaminated supplement. Hardy had to serve a one-year suspension anyway, and although she scrambled her way out of a sand pit of depression, she is not the same person and never will be.

After all that, Hardy had to endure a bureaucratic tussle between the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency. The former wanted to impose an additional ban on any athlete who had tested positive for any reason; the latter fought any deviation from sanctions in a code that had taken years to write. It wasn't until the spring of 2011 that Hardy learned for certain she would be eligible to race in London.

"I think as soon as I was told I wasn't allowed to compete, it's the first thing I wanted to do again," she said. "And during the time I was suspended ... I put a lot of emphasis into my training and appreciated every single second in practice, and I still do now."

There remained the not-so-small task of actually making the U.S. team, and Hardy's meet didn't start well. She missed qualifying in the 100 breaststroke -- an event in which she holds a world record, set in a blazing display of strength and frustration three years ago in her first post-suspension meet -- by a half-second.

Hardy has worked hard to overcome the trauma of having a lifelong goal placed in her hands and then slapped away in 2008. "Going through the heartbreak of my 100 breast this week rekindled that," she said. "For a 24-hour period, I was pretty sad and upset."

This time, however, she had the psychological tools to cope with it and another race, another chance.

Hardy has diversified her skill set, and her freestyle has gradually gained on her breaststroke. Yet she still calls herself "green" in freestyle technique, and appeared genuinely stunned that this was the way things shook out. Her competition included teen phenom Missy Franklin, who would finish second, and several other hungry sharks. Fresh out of the pool, Hardy's first words to reporters were, "I never in a million years thought I could win that race."

The key, she said, was staying calm. Not looking around. Thinking about what could be instead of what might not materialize.

When it was over, the word Hardy kept using to characterize her state of mind wasn't elation or relief, but "gratitude." If that sounds New Age-y, well, she's earned the right to use whatever vocabulary she wants. It's hard to picture anyone who will be more grateful to get on the plane, get her official USA apparel or walk onto the pool deck in London. In a happy bit of synergy, her fiancé, Swiss swimmer Dominik Meichtry, will be there, too, after having to go alone four years ago.

They say names can be self-determining, and so it seems in this case. Hardy is the adjective that best describes her.

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