The day started to turn sour for B.J. Bedford in the morning. She was in the practice pool at the Indiana University Natatorium in Indianapolis last Friday, getting ready for her big race at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials that night, the final of the 100-meter backstroke, and she coughed in the hot, dead air. Coughed? What did the cough mean? Had a bronchial condition developed? Did she have a cold? Now? The voices of panic began to scream in her head.
"Then I went to lunch at the food court at the mall near our hotel," said Bradford, a 27-year-old Texas graduate from Etna, N.H. "I went to a stall that sold pasta. I ordered the ziti. Five minutes went past, 10 minutes. I finally screamed at the woman, 'Do we have an ETA for that ziti?' It finally came, and as the woman was passing it to me, she dropped it, straight into a pot of water. I rushed to another stall. I just got some soup, which I couldn't eat. I left the bowl half-filled on the table."
For Bedford, the possibility of failure was palpable. This was her fourth Olympic trials. She had won five U.S. titles in the 100-meter backstroke. She had swum for the U.S. in all sorts of international competitions. She never had made an Olympic team.
Her worst failure came in 1996. She was a favorite in both the 100 and the 200 backstroke at the trials. She finished third in the 100 and fell apart in the 200, not even reaching the final. After diving into the cool-down pool at the end of her 200 qualifying heat, she let her tears mix with the chlorinated water and decided to quit the sport. She became a bartender in Austin and watched the Atlanta Games out of the corner of her eye on the bar's 32 TV screens. Only a breakup with her boyfriend and a call from the U.S. national program brought her back for 3� more years of swimming.
Three and a half years. Were they worth it? Friday was the one day, the only day, to write a final line to Bedford's story. For every happy tale of veteran sprinters (Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres, 1-2 in the 100 butterfly and the 100 freestyle), for every early success (16-year-old Megan Quann in the 100 breaststroke and 15-year-old Michael Phelps—the youngest male swimmer since 1932 to make the U.S. Olympic team—in the 200 butterfly), there were hundreds of sad departures, athletes walking silently into the night next to their parents and coaches and friends. The field of 1,305 swimmers in the eight-day event was mercilessly winnowed out to 52 spots in 26 individual events. Every slight edge, every physical and psychological change, seemed to matter.
"I'd broken a fingernail on Thursday in the prelims," Bedford said. "I have these extra-long fake nails. I started obsessing about the broken nail. I thought it would throw me out of balance or something. I went to a nail salon on Friday afternoon to get it fixed. The place was packed. I waited and waited. I started stretching on the floor. Everyone was looking at me. The little Asian ladies. I got up and ran out of there."
She wound up talking on the phone to a sports psychologist in Colorado Springs, a man she had never met. ("I couldn't get ahold of my regular psychologist or my coach," she said.) She wound up barfing away her unsatisfying lunch 30 minutes before her event. ("I felt better for about three seconds and then was sick to my stomach again," she said.) She wound up, at the end of her long day, nervous, nervous, nervous, cutting through the water, down the pool, turn, back, relying on all the years of competition, the muscle memory, trying to stay under control, composed, pushing to the end, exhausted, touching, looking back at the scoreboard. She had come in first with a time of 1:01.85. "I'm overwhelmed, excited and effervescent," she said.
The hardest race she would ever have to swim was done. Sydney and the Olympics will be a simple chance at glory. Indianapolis and the trials—for Bedford and for every other swimmer involved—were all about survival.