A month ago I traveled to Omaha, Nebraska to attend the US Olympic Swimming Trials for the first time in my life. When I was still actively competing as a swimmer, I considered qualifying to swim at this meet as my ultimate goal. Everything lined up perfectly–I was graduating from college in the Spring of 2012, an Olympic year, and if I was able to meet the time standard for my best event, the 200-butterfly, I could end my career on the sport’s biggest stage. It almost seemed too good to be true.
Sadly, things did not turn out the way I envisioned them, and I fell just short of qualifying time standard in what would become my final race. Looking back, I have bittersweet feelings about the end of my career. On the one hand, I am still somewhat sad to have never experienced competing at the Olympic Trials, something that under 1% of all total USA Swimming-registered athletes achieve during each 4-year Olympic quadrangle. But, now that it’s over, the final swim in my career has taken on a greater significance, becoming a celebration of many years of happiness that the sport brought to me.
And so, presented with a new opportunity through this documentary to attend the meet I once strived to compete in, I set off for Omaha this summer without a clear idea of what to expect. I had never been to a swim meet held inside of a 15,000 seat arena, with a jumbo tron hanging over the pool, with fashion models handing out the awards to each event and press representatives from nearly every American sports news outlet present to watch the action. For those eight days in June, swimming really mattered.
I had also never been to a swim meet that held so much pressure. For those of you who don’t know, if you are an American swimmer hoping to represent the US in the Olympics, there is only one way to qualify. Regardless of past performance or international-standing, you must place either first or second in your respective event in the championship final at the US Olympic Trials. That’s it. This means that it does not matter whether you are a World Record holder, former Olympic gold medalist, or haven’t lost a race in three years. You still have to perform at this single meet, and if by chance you happen to slip up, you are simply out of luck. This is what was on the line for Connor Jaeger, and the hundreds of other athletes vying for a few dozen spots on the Olympic team.
Connor had ironically once described the atmosphere of the meet to me, before The Water Is My Sky had even begun filming. I’ll never forget his description–while he acknowledged the sheer joy of qualifying for the team, a feat he had the fortune of experiencing in his first trip to the meet, he was also quick to point out a side of the meet that the TV cameras tend to gloss over. This is the utter heartbreak and disappointment of those who failed to qualify for the Games. In some cases, the difference between going to the Olympics and watching them from the couch at home, are mere hundredths of seconds. This is true of every Olympic Trials, and it is what makes it one of the most emotionally draining and dramatic sporting events in the world.
Had I qualified to swim in the 2012 Trials, I would have had zero expectations of making the Olympic Team. But for a lot of athletes, the Olympic Trials represents four years of work and sacrifice, if not an entire career, coming down to a single race. Either earn the chance to compete in the world’s largest sporting event, or fail, and perhaps be forced to end your career. After all, the Olympic Trials only happens once every four years, and it is very hard for even the most recognizable stars of the sport to earn a living while simultaneously training to compete at the highest international level throughout the next four-year waiting period. This is what makes Trials perhaps the purest definition of “sink or swim.”
This year at the 2016 Olympic Trials I had a front row seat to that juxtaposition of emotions that Connor had described to me years earlier. It was hard not to get swept up in the joyous reactions of swimmers touching first or second. It was equally hard not to share the heartache of swimmers who had dreams and hopes of swimming in the Olympics, only to come up short. The striking representation of each of life’s strongest emotions so vividly on display encapsulated what I love about swimming so much: the ups and downs, highs and lows we all encounter each day. And how we all keep going despite each setback or success.
And even though a lot of these swimmers declared the end of their career immediately following the conclusion of their races, they will continue to press forward in their lives and be stronger for having gone through this disappointment. This is what makes swimmers some of the toughest and most reliable people out there.
I am not sure when Connor will swim his final race. We haven’t talked about it. And there are plenty of swimmers who were at this year’s Olympic Trials who will continue to swim for years to come. But there will be a time for all of them to walk away, and I hope that what will be left in the moments following that final race will not be the times on the scoreboard, but an appreciation for every high and every low they have encountered along the way, and the feeling of freedom from being in the water, a feeling that will never go away.