MCGREGORY doing these days? Well, how would you be doing if, after thousands
upon thousands of hours of preparation, your dream was crushed in a fifth of a
second? Bitterness, despondency and a long weekend with Jim Beam come to my
mind, and that's just for starters.
And this was
supposed to be her year. A gregarious 22-year-old with a cascade of brown
curls, McGregory is one of the best backstrokers in the world. Indeed, at one
point, the best. During the U.S. Olympic Trials last month McGregory set the
world record in the 100 meters at 59.15. Time to pack for Beijing, right? Not
quite. You see, McGregory made the mistake of swimming her best race during the
preliminary round, and in the next heat Natalie Coughlin turned in a 59.03. For
McGregory, it was sort of like being elected president only to have Congress
pass a 15-minute term limit during her inauguration. To make the team she still
had to advance through the semis, then finish in the top two in the finals.
For a moment, it
seemed she had. With Coughlin in front, McGregory and Margaret Hoelzer appeared
to hit the wall simultaneously. Only they didn't, of course, because nothing is
ever simultaneous in swimming. So the women craned their necks toward the
scoreboard. By .2 of a second—less time than it takes to gulp—Hoelzer had
prevailed. McGregory covered her mouth in horror, as if witnessing a gruesome
accident. Despite owning the second-fastest time ever, she wouldn't be racing
At least she had
one more chance: the 200-meter backstroke. In the final she tore through the
pool and held the lead going into the final turn, then touched the wall only to
look up and see she'd come in ... third, this time by .77.
for feeling cursed. At the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2004 she also came in third.
Twice. She missed Athens by .7 of a second in the 100-meter backstroke and .54
in the 200. (Cruel Irony Department: Her "losing" time in this year's
100-meter finals would have won gold at the '04 Games.) Think about that the
next time you want to karate-kick a trash can because you missed the 8:05 to
the office. You may have to wait 30 minutes. McGregory had to wait four years.
Only to have it happen again.
however well-intentioned, couldn't comfort her. "They have no idea what
you're feeling," McGregory says. "They think they're helping, but
they're not." So she lay on her L-shaped couch in her tiny Austin apartment
for four days, watching reruns on the Food Network and mulling the future. She
thought about finishing school at Texas, about a career in theater, about the
physical toll of swimming—in Speedo years, 22 is ancient. She mused on the
opportunity she passed up to swim for the country of her birth, England, where
the competition is less rigorous. ("I thought it was a cop-out," she
says. "The easy way to the Games.") Ultimately, McGregory realized what
she had to do. She called her coach, Randy Reese, and broke the news: She
wouldn't be showing up for practice.
Not that day at
least. McGregory wanted one more afternoon on the couch. After all, she'd need
her strength. She had a new goal: "Make the 2012 Games, my body
Wait a second.
What happened to wallowing in self-pity? "I could easily think of it as
unfair," McGregory says. "But once I realized I wasn't a failure in
anyone else's eyes I realized I needed to snap out of it and grow up." Her
philosophy is one any kid playing sports could learn from. Hell, any adult.
"Maybe I'm learning some valuable lessons here and will get to pass them on
to someone else," says McGregory. "Maybe it's a lesson I'm not aware of
So she's in the
pool again, churning forward. Sure, she'll watch the Olympics, "if I happen
to be in front of the TV," but she has other priorities. The U.S. Open
Swimming Championships begin on July 29 in Minneapolis. Hoelzer and Coughlin
won't be there, and Bob Costas won't be breathing gravitas into the event, but
it's still a big meet. No doubt you've got plenty on your agenda that weekend,
but take a moment if you can to think of McGregory, the swimmer who could have
been broken but isn't.
At least one
person will be rooting hard for her—her boyfriend, Justin Mortimer, who may
understand better than anyone how McGregory feels. You see, Mortimer competed
in the 2004 U.S. trials too, in the 1,500-meter freestyle. He had a great race,
turned in one of his best times.