August 29, 2015

ATLANTA (AP) Thirty-five years after his hopes for a gold medal were dashed by Jimmy Carter's boycott of the Moscow Olympics, Craig Beardsley is at peace.

That doesn't mean the former world record-holding swimmer has backed off from his belief that staying home in 1980 was a huge mistake.

''We were just pawns,'' Beardsley said. ''They could do whatever they wanted to do with us. Unfortunately, they didn't look at the bigger picture.''

Carter's diagnosis of cancer that spread to his brain - and his public discussion of fighting the disease at age 90 - has rekindled memories of one of the most debated decisions of his presidency: boycotting the Olympics in response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.

For Beardsley, the recent events are especially poignant. He lost his mother to cancer and has worked more than a quarter-century with Swim Across America, an organization that travels to pools around the country raising money for research and treatment of the dreaded disease.

Now, the man who cost Beardsley his shot at the Olympics is fighting cancer.

''I hold no ill will toward him. Obviously, I hope he gets better,'' Beardsley said in a telephone interview. ''I feel like my life is kind of intertwined with him forever in an interesting way.''

What an understatement.

Beardsley set a world record in the 200-meter butterfly at the 1980 U.S. Olympic trials, a mark he would hold for some three years. His time was nearly 1.5 seconds than Sergey Fesenko's winning performance in Moscow.

Fesenko got a gold medal.

Beardsley got nothing.

Compounding the agony, he failed to make the U.S. team for the Los Angeles Games four years later. Beardsley finished third in his signature event at trials, missing out for the second spot - and a trip to the Olympics - by 0.36 seconds.

He retired from the sport at age 23, his Olympic dream never realized.

''The lesson I learned from that was actually a very good life lesson,'' Beardsley said. ''Sometimes, you do everything in your power, you do everything you're supposed to do, but sometimes things are just out of your control. ... You've got to learn to put that behind you, let it roll off your shoulders, and just move on.''

One of his closest friends, Glenn Mills, went through a similar ordeal.

Mills qualified for the 1980 Olympics by winning the 200 breaststroke at the U.S. trials. He finished fourth at the next trials, 0.62 seconds away from a spot on the team.

That, too, ended his career.

''We're brothers in agony,'' Mills said, managing a hearty chuckle.

It was a lot tougher to deal with at the time.

''When you're at the top of your game, the thought of not making it in `84 never enters your mind,'' Mills said. ''When I missed the team in `84, I was totally lost. I didn't know what to do. There was nothing. That's where the real disappointment from your whole career sets in.''

Mills also knows how devastating cancer can be. His older brother succumbed to bone cancer when he was only 17.

While Mills has never wavered in his belief that the boycott was one of Carter's biggest blunders, he empathizes with the former president as he takes on his toughest foe.

''I'll be honest, when I hear about him politically, his opinion on certain things, I automatically lean away from him because of that (boycott),'' Mills said. ''But I don't care if you like someone or don't like `em, you don't want to see somebody go through this.''

Carter's spokeswoman, Deanna Congileo, referred to his 2010 book, ''White House Diary,'' in which Carter wrote that in hindsight ''one of my most difficult decisions was supporting the boycott of the Summer Olympics.''

In his presidential memoir, ''Keeping Faith,'' Carter also discussed the choice not to send a U.S. team to Moscow. In all, 60 nations sat out the 1980 Summer Olympics at Carter's behest, which led to a retaliatory, Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics that included more than a dozen countries.

''For the Soviet Union, the Moscow Olympics was much more than a sporting event,'' Carter wrote. ''They saw it as a triumph for communism and a vivid demonstration to other nations of the world that the Soviets represented the true spirit of the ancient Olympics.''

After the boycott was formalized with a vote by the U.S. Olympic Committee, Carter invited the entire American team to the White House, where each athlete got a brief handshake, posed for a picture with the president, and received the Congressional Gold Medal.

Mills remembers that day with mixed feelings. He wanted to be in Moscow, not Washington.

''You're mad. You're not in a good mood. You can't believe you're going to see the guy who told you, `You can't go to the Olympics,''' said Mills, who now has a company, Go Swim Productions, that makes instructional videos. ''Then you get to the White House. The president of the United States walks in. And you're like, `Whoa, this is pretty cool.' Regardless of what people think about him, he will be remembered as a great man.''

In some strange way, Beardsley is proud of his unique place in history, though it feels like a bit of limbo. He's recognized as an Olympian by the USOC, but not by the International Olympic Committee.

And, in perhaps the ultimate irony, Beardsley made a rather surprising choice when picking out a name for his now 20-year-old son.

Carter.

''There was probably something subliminal going on, something Freudian, don't you think? Maybe that's what it was. I love him so much ... and maybe that was a way of taking the whole Jimmy Carter thing and putting it behind me.''

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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