Walking the plank


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I remember saying to a reporter in Omaha a few weeks before the Olympic Trials were set to begin: “I feel like I’m walking the plank, that any second I’m going to fall.”

In life, a few of us manage to age gracefully, fade away, putting up the good fight that none of us can win. Father Time takes us all. For an Olympic athlete, there is no setting sun, no twilight of a long career.


At a certain age you make the Olympic team or you’re done. Eventually you aren’t going to make it. It’s a walk on a not-so-long plank of wood, followed by a fall and a final splash.

It’s so morbid.

At 33 years of age, I was far past being a veteran in the sport of swimming. I knew the end was coming. Frankly I was surprised that “the end” hadn’t come sooner.

It’s not the confidence one might expect from a guy who won the last three Olympic Trials, who is a two-time defending Olympic champion, the guy who occasionally wears a red, white, and blue cape with sequins.

My body had changed. I was older and I felt older. I had always been in the habit of listening to my body, and lately my body was telling me a lot more than it ever had before, especially in the morning.

Recovery time after training had become as important as the training itself.

I was still swimming fast. Very fast. It just hurt more. I knew that I was going to have a great swim at Olympic Trials. I had trained really hard, made so many sacrifices. The work was done. I was as prepared as I could be.


21.91 seconds.

My time at Olympic Trials in the 50-meter freestyle was fast enough to win any previous Olympic Games.

That’s something to be proud of, particularly at the advanced age of 33.

I placed fourth.

The top two swimmers qualify for the Olympics. My time of 21.91 seconds placed me 12th in the world for 2008, and I can expect to be bumped quite a few more slots by the time they extinguish the Olympic torch at the Closing Ceremony.

This sport of swimming has gotten a lot faster.

When Tom Jager, the world-record holder in the 50 meters freestyle for close to 10 years, retired from the sport in 1996, he bowed gracefully saying, “It is better to try and fail, than fail to try.”

That line stuck with me. It’s probably the reason why I was still in the pool at the 2008 trials racing against younger and faster swimmers. We won’t know what we’re capable of until we try, all the while knowing that one day, we’ll dig deep and it won’t be enough, or it won’t be there at all.

It takes courage to try, to lay it all on the line. If you’re able to do that, well, that too is something to be proud of. I am able to say that I tried. I really gave it everything I had, and I came up short. There is no shame in that.

Even though I didn’t make the team, I’m going to Beijing. I will be writing and reporting on the events and atmosphere, the good and the bad, the triumph and tragedy that come with every Olympics. I’m looking forward to it. I’m going to have a great time.

In the interview with that reporter, I told her that I was happy, really happy. Olympic Trials have come and gone and I didn’t make the team. I’m still really happy. Life is what you make it. I have a new chapter to look forward to.

I walked the plank, and, after making a bit of a splash, I’ve found that the water’s not too bad after all.

-- Gary Hall Jr.

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