Commentary

The fine line at Olympic trials

Updated: June 21, 2012, 4:38 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

After more than a decade of training, hurdler Anwar Moore was a mere two seconds from qualifying for the Olympics. He was in third place with 15 meters left in the 110-meter race at the 2008 U.S. track and field trials, where the top three finishers go to the Olympics and everyone else goes home.

Just 15 meters away and two seconds from Beijing. And then he tumbled following the last hurdle and, just like that, his 2008 Olympic hopes were over.

"Yeah, it's a tremendous disappointment to me," Moore told reporters minutes later. "I guess God has something different for me in store. And I hope it's ..."

[+] EnlargeEric Shanteau
Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty ImagesThree-tenths of a second. That's what separated Eric Shanteau from an Olympic berth in 2004.

He stopped speaking and turned away. And then he began to cry.

Finish fourth by a blink of an eye at the Olympics and you go home without a medal. But at least you're still an Olympian, an honor so great it probably will be mentioned in the first sentence of your obituary. But finish out of the running by a blink of an eye at the Olympic trials and you have nothing to save yourself from the heartbreak. You are not an Olympian. You are just someone who wasn't quite fast enough, strong enough, healthy enough or good enough on the day it mattered most.

Only five men and five women will earn a spot on the U.S. gymnastics team at next week's trials in San Jose. Only the top three finishers in each event will make the team at the track and field trials that begin Friday in Eugene, Ore. Only the top two in each event will make the team at the U.S. swim trials, which start next week in Omaha, Neb.

The U.S. trials can be cruel.

"Finishing third in the Olympic [swim] trials, you may as well get last," swimmer Eric Shanteau said. "Looking back at my career to this point, that has been the most devastating point in my life, the 2004 Olympic trials."

Shanteau finished third to Michael Phelps and Erik Vendt in the 400-meter IM at those trials. That was rough, but he still could qualify for the Olympics in the 200 IM. It was a better race for him and he felt confident he would make the team. He trailed Phelps entering the final lap of the 200 IM but led third-place swimmer Ryan Lochte by nearly a second; then, Lochte caught him and Shanteau finished third by barely three-tenths of a second. He stayed home while Phelps, Vendt and Lochte went to Athens and each came home with medals.

You can be good enough to medal at the Olympics, but if you're an American swimmer, that doesn't mean you're fast enough to even go.

"Oh man, my initial reaction was anger," Shanteau said of finishing third at the trials. "I'm not the type of guy who's going to throw his cap and goggles and stomp down the deck, but I was mad. I remember walking down that deck and being very upset and very frustrated and feeling a 'Why me?' type of thing. That's the reaction any athlete would have in that position -- to really want to make the Olympic team and to see a lifelong goal slip out of your fingers in the last five meters of a race. It's brutal.

"To be that close and have those guys go on to win gold and silver at the Olympics -- it was hard; it was very, very hard."

At least Shanteau made the team in 2008. Hayley McGregory Mortimer finished third twice (50 back and 100 back) at the 2004 trials and then finished third in both again in 2008. "That was the best swim I had in that moment in my life," she told digital magazine Splash, "but I felt like I had disappointed all the people who had supported me in my career."

There is an exception to the top two standard in swimming -- a swimmer can qualify as a relay-only competitor. This was how Cullen Jones made the U.S. team in 2008 after finishing third at the trials. Still, he said, "For a lot of athletes, the trials are like one wedding and six funerals."

Or, in the case of Lashinda Demus, two births. The track and field star was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 400 meters in 2006. Then she got pregnant, fell briefly into depression, eventually emerged from it and had twins in 2007. Her body was still recovering from the pregnancy during the 2008 trials, where she finished fourth and just missed the Olympic team.

"It was a horrible feeling," she recalled. "One good thing is I had my twins and I was so happy about that, and I struggled with not being happy at the beginning while I was pregnant. From the change of being happy about twins to being sad about not making the team, it was emotionally draining for me and I struggled with depression. It was just very hard for me."

Demus said not making the team sent her into "a little hole, a little dark area of my life." She said she occasionally was so depressed about not making the team, she would look at her twins and think, "If only I hadn't gotten pregnant."

"Of course, of course. I knew if I hadn't gotten pregnant I would have easily made the team," she said. "But it's not their fault, so I always feel horrible when I have those feelings, because I brought them into the world."

[+] EnlargeLashinda Demus
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesLashinda Demus missed out on the 2008 Olympics after finishing fourth in the 400 meters.

Demus said she watched the Olympics in 2008, but only the most obscure sports, never track and field. That would have been too painful. Shanteau said that as painful as it was, he forced himself to watch the swimming competition in the 2004 Olympics.

"It was hard, but it was motivating at the same time," he recalled. "I knew I was good enough to compete with the best in the world. I just had to make the team. That was the hard part, just getting to the meet. Then I could concentrate on potentially winning medals."

Four years later, he finished second in the 200 IM to qualify for the team despite being diagnosed with testicular cancer the week before. He did not make the finals in the event in Beijing, but he was able to say he was an Olympian. His times have improved since his cancer treatment and he'll be one of the favorites at this year's trials.

"I used it to grow a little bit and used it to mature as an athlete," Shanteau said of 2004. "It was a motivating factor and a feeling I've had for eight years now, and it's a feeling I never want to have again. And that's a motivation whenever I dive in for a qualifying meet."

Demus, too, has motivation: her twins. She wants to medal at the Olympics for them.

"The twins did help," she said of rebounding from 2008's disappointment. "I still felt I had time to prove to them how great an athlete I was and I could leave a legacy for them. They helped keep me motivated to keep going."

Of course, like everyone else, she will have to be fast enough when it matters at the trials. As does Katie McGregor. She just missed the Olympics when she finished fourth in the 10,000 meters at both the 2004 and 2008 trials.

McGregor declined to discuss the fourth-place finishes, saying she wants nothing but positive energy heading her way right now. That's because when the runners line up for the 10,000 race Friday night in Eugene, she will be there for a third time, determined to finish in a fast enough time to finally call herself Olympian.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com