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HOW'S HAYLEY 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 in Beijing.
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.
Forgive McGregory 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.
Her friends, 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 willing."
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 yet."
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.