The Week Before
by Casey Barrett
Dealing with doubt and dread on Trials Eve…
It’s quiet. Almost too quiet, right coaches? When you’re laying there late at night, sleep a lost notion, rehearsing events you can’t control… Have you prepared them perfectly?
And how about you, swimmers? Have you mastered the Power of Intention? Have you put in the work, day in, day out, and put yourself in that Zen zone of No Regrets? Or do you hear that haunting voice at your back? The voice of doubt that creeps in and won’t let go…
This is the bad time. The time of dread and demons. Six days until the reckoning for every American swimmer with an Olympic dream. No matter how well prepared and mentally mighty you may be, the week before is brutal. Your taper is drawing to a close, the training is done, you just want to board that plane and get it on. But first, some dark nights of the soul.
I remember the soundtrack to my own dark nights, sixteen years ago. I can’t remember what I was listening to sixteen hours ago, but I can remember with dark clarity listening to a brooding Lou Reed album called “Set the Twilight Reeling” in the days before the ’96 Canadian Trials. With song titles like “Finish Line” and “Hang On to Your Emotions”, it suited my self-important, self-imposed pressurized state. Embarrassing to recall how much it felt like a matter of death and life. Trials would be either an execution or an elevation. There was no in between.
Some perspective would help. Like the kind found by Eric Shanteau, who truly felt the weight of the world on his shoulders four years ago, in the lead up to the 2008 Trials. In addition to all the usual Will-I-Make-It? baggage carried by every competitor, Shanteau was also carrying around a cruel, and still secret, diagnosis of testicular cancer. Somehow the guy performed like a Jedi in Omaha and made the Team in the 200 breast. Take that Big C. When he disclosed his diagnosis days after the Trials, he instantly became a Story. Up there on the press podiums with Phelps and Coughlin, getting calls from Lance, well wishes flooding his Inbox from strangers across the country.
ESPN.com recently caught up with him and discussed his last four cancer-free years. In the story, Shanteau shared the void he felt after the Games, when all the attention vanished and he was left alone with a body that was “obviously capable of growing cancerous tumors.” Then his outlook changed. As he returned to the water, he started thrashing his best times, appearing on international podiums, elevating his game to gold medal contention.
Compared to cancer, all pressure is relative. Safe to say Shanteau is sleeping soundly this week.
But what about Ryan Lochte? Are all those sex symbol, Vogue cover, better-than-Phelps expectations getting to him? His week in Omaha is not exactly an open road to Games glory. In more than one of his prime events, he’s going to have to be sharp as hell just to get his hand on the wall first or second. If Phelps swims the 400 IM (which now appears to be likely), making the Team in this event might be harder than winning gold in London. With all respect to Hungary’s Lazlo Cseh, the three best 400 IM’ers on earth right now are Americans. Meaning, the U.S. entry in London could be Tyler Clary and Michael Phelps. That would be a hell of a start to the week for the now face of the sport. I don’t see that happening, the smart money has Lochte touching the wall first, but that scenario is less than a long shot.
What about the 200 free? Of course he’ll be on the relay, but is a top two finish a lock? And to really raise the doomsday scenario, what about the 200 back? Sure, Lochte is the defending Olympic champ and remains the favorite for gold, but Clary is looming, and so is young Ryan Murphy of Bolles. It’s worth noting that Murphy beat Lochte head-to-head in Gainesville this month. While little can be read into Lochte’s untapered swims, word is that he took that race much more seriously than most, competing in Speedo’s full Fastskin “system.”
How’s he sleeping this week? Is the voice of doubt starting to whisper? Unlikely. If Lochte’s public persona is to be believed, and it certainly seems genuine, he seems like the last guy to battle any demons of dread.
Maybe that’s because he’s always grasped what Shanteau had to learn in the hardest way possible: That this is all just a sport and a pastime. Something that’s supposed to be fun. And what’s more fun than chasing a dream?
Good luck in Omaha, everyone.