Last Thursday, 23-year-old Alex Ngan arrived at the airport in Oakland more than an hour early, just like you’re supposed to. He cruised through security, with only his backpack and his Columbia University duffel bag, which held his swimsuit, goggles and a change of clothes. Early to the gate, he settled in to wait for Delta flight 1374 to Salt Lake City, boarding at 4:15 p.m. From there Ngan would connect to Omaha, crash for the night and, in the morning, fulfill a life’s dream by competing in the U.S. Olympic trials. His heat in the 50-meter freestyle began at 10 a.m.
Only, as Ngan waited, 4:15 became 4:30, and then 4:40, with no plane in sight. He began to worry. Once aboard, the captain announced another delay. Something about the baggage ratio. Sitting in his window seat in row 26 a little after 5 p.m, the gray asphalt of the tarmac still outside his window, Ngan checked his itinerary. He had 37 minutes to connect in SLC. The plane was now 40 minutes late. It was going to be tight. Very tight.
At 5:33 p.m., when the flight finally lifted off, Ngan looked down at his backpack, which held his Gray’s Anatomy textbook, but he was too nervous to study. He put his head back and visualized his strokes for the next morning.
Ngan had always loved the water. Growing up, all four Ngan kids swam for the local club in Santa Clarita, Calif., north of Los Angeles. But it was Alex, the youngest, who kept at it the longest, setting records at William Hart High School, first as a backstroker and then a sprinter. A valedictorian, he then swam at Columbia, where he focused on freestyle. His parents, Lim and Brenda, were proud, but prouder still that he was headed to med school. Lim was a dentist, Brenda his office manager, and all three of Alex’s sisters were in medicine: one an endodontist, another an emergency medicine resident, and the third finishing her orthodontics residency. After graduating from Columbia in 2015, Alex took a gap year and applied to med schools. He was accepted into the prestigious UC Berkeley–UC San Francisco Joint Medical Program, on track to receive an MS in 2019 and his MD two years later. Which meant life was about to get very hectic. If he was going to take a shot at the Olympics, this was it.
He spent the last year training, first on his own, then with the Columbia team, and finally with the Golden Road Rebels club team in Burbank alongside elite swimmers like Ed Moses, many of whom dwarfed Ngan. Though 6' 2", he was only 165 pounds. Unlike many hulking sprinters, who power through the water, Ngan was a finesse swimmer. His old high school coach, Steve Neale, always compared him to another Hart alumnus, Olympic medalist Anthony Ervin; both employ a “barreling” stroke, using their core and body rotation to propel through the water.
As he trained, Ngan whittled his 50 free times lower and lower until this past May, at the Speedo Grand Challenge in Irvine, he touched the wall, looked up and saw 23:20 on the scoreboard. The cutoff for qualification was 23:29. He’d done it. He’d made the Olympic trials. It was, Ngan recalls, a feeling of “pure bliss,” a goal he’d harbored since he was little. To swim against Olympians. To have a shot at Rio.
A week later, he got a text from Stanley Wong, one of his best friends and a teammate at Columbia. People always joked that they were twins, because both were swimmers, had three older sisters and were Chinese-American. Wong had qualified too, with the exact same time: 23:20. “I guess we really are twins,” Wong wrote. Even better, that meant the two would likely be swimming in adjacent lanes. They hatched a plan to coordinate their pre-swim outfits—gray Columbia t-shirts, blue shorts, blue Nike shoes—so they could take a picture to send to their old coach back in New York, Jim Bolster. He’d be pumped.
After all, the two boys were swimming the same meet as Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, in an event drawing 38,000 fans every day rather than a couple hundred. This was the big time.
Finally, at 7:54, the plane landed in Salt Lake. Ngan had 11 minutes before his connecting flight left. His seatmates, knowing his story, helped him hurry off. He hit the tunnel in a dead sprint.
By 8:07 he could see the connecting gate. Maybe this flight was delayed too. Maybe they’d held it for him. Then he saw the closed doors, and the empty spot on the tarmac. The gate agent apologized. He’d tried to hold the flight but it had just taken off. He told Alex to get on the phone with Delta agents to find another way. But the agents said there was no other way. His was the last flight to Omaha. What about other cities close by, asked Alex—Detroit, Minneapolis? Sorry, the agent replied. No luck this late.
So Ngan did the only thing he could think of: He ran toward the car rental booths. He’d already looked it up on Google Maps. It was 13 hours from Salt Lake City to Omaha, and it was nearly 9 p.m. If he drove all night he might make it just in time for his race. Many of us might be pissed off, blaming Delta, feeling sorry for ourselves. Not Alex. He was flush with adrenaline. Focused. After all, when you spend much of your life preparing for one opportunity, you don’t just give up on it, right?
Two weeks earlier, when Ngan first booked his flight, he knew he might be cutting it close. But med school began in mid-June and the trials were at the end of the month, just before a midterm. Flying out on Thursday afternoon was the only way to get to Omaha without missing two days of class.
At first, he’d worried about going at all. Bailing on school wasn’t a good first impression, and his life was going to be in medicine—primary care, hopefully—not sports. But his anatomy professor encouraged him to go, even covering more material on Thursday so he wouldn’t miss much on Friday. Then, just that morning at Human Anatomy and Development class, Ngan’s 16 classmates had surprised him with a poster of a Michael Phelps Wheaties box, only they’d photoshopped in Ngan for Phelps, along with his signature.
A few hours later, a classmate sent an email to faculty and students. It began:
As you may know, one of our new friends and colleagues, Alex Ngan (JMP 1st year student), has achieved a major life goal by qualifying into the Olympic trials in swimming the 50m Freestyle race.
His classmates and I have all decided to come into school early tomorrow so that we can live stream his qualifying heat and cheer him on together (and eat bagels).
You are welcome to join us (especially if you can cheer LOUDLY — he needs to hear us in Omaha!)
The person who’d set up the live stream? His professor.
“That’s when I really got excited,” recalls Ngan. “I realized I wasn’t just swimming for myself or my family but for my classmates and school.”
After class, his master’s seminar and lunch, he’d hopped a BART train to the airport in time to catch his flight, the one that cost him $895 on Hotwire and which soon became, for all intents and purposes, worthless.
By 9 p.m. on Thursday, Ngan was on the road, hurried along by a sympathetic Enterprise agent, who put him in a Hyundai Veloster, promising that “You’re going to love it, it’s fast!” He bought two large Red Bulls and a Monster drink at a convenience store, then pulled up Google Maps: 941 miles. Twelve hours and 45 minutes. Estimated time of arrival: 10 a.m. exactly, without stops. Still, Ngan felt strangely optimistic. He could beat Google Maps; he knew it. Plus, he’d pulled all-nighters before, if never before a swim meet. He tore off into the night on I-80.
As he drove, his first call was to his Golden Rebels coach, Mike Lucero, who was already in Omaha waiting for him, then to two of his sisters. Both thought he was crazy, though his second sister’s husband was supportive. You don’t get many chances in life like this, he said. Go for it. Then he called a friend who’d recently driven from Southern California to Minnesota, asking for advice on where to stop for gas and how to stay awake.
The highway streamed by. Ngan downed a Red Bull, queued up his workout playlist on Spotify. Drake and the shifting pulse of Louis the Child filled the Hyundai. He pushed the car past 85 mph, up to 90, then 95. The Enterprise dude was right: The Hyundai could move. On his phone, he watched the ETA inch down. Now he was 10 minutes ahead of schedule, now 13, now 15, looking at a 9:45 a.m. arrival time.
Utah became Wyoming. Then, at 10:14 p.m., as he zoomed through Uinta County, he heard a noise that made his stomach sink. Sirens. He looked up and saw the lights. 96 mph, the officer told him. Help a guy out here, Ngan countered, relating his plight. The cop said he’d been tailing Ngan for a while and could have given him three tickets by now. Worse than the $230 fine was the delay: 15 minutes lost. By the time he got on the road again, his ETA was back past 10 a.m. Making matters tougher, he’d now need to keep it under 85 mph or so, within 10 miles of the speed limit. Still, it was possible.
Midnight arrived, then 1 a.m. Ngan sucked down his second Red Bull, then tore into a box of Clif Bars, a gift from his classmates.
At 2 a.m. and then again at 4 a.m., his second sister called to check on him. She’d set her iPhone alarm to wake her up. At 3 a.m. his brother-in-law, an anesthesiologist working overnight at the hospital, did the same. You O.K.? Staying awake?
He was, barely. He’d run out of adrenaline. The caffeine slid off him. Still, he was somehow gaining time: The Google ETA was now at 9:40 a.m.
Ngan pushed on into the predawn, imagining the race. He felt strong, confident, sure he would set a PR. And who knew? Sure, his chances of actually qualifying for the Olympic team were remote—“I’d need to have miracle swims, basically,” he says—but stranger things have happened.
Just after 5 a.m. That’s when the dream died. Somewhere in the grassy fields of western Nebraska, as dawn warmed the bottom of his windshield, Ngan decided to switch to Apple Maps, to see if it provided a different route. Upon doing so, he nearly yelped. Apple Maps’s arrival time was nearly an hour later. And that’s when it hit him: The Google ETA hadn’t accounted for the one-hour time change. Even if he drove 100 mph the rest of the way, he wouldn’t make it in time for his race.
Still, Ngan sped on a while longer, thinking of his classmates waking up early to watch him. At 6:30 a.m., he alerted his professor, then sent a message to the class, which he’d named Fun Room Squad: “Hey guys, been having a pretty crazy night. Flight got delayed, missed connection, driving to Omaha right now, but probably wont [sic] make it in time for my event.”
Not long after, he finally called his mom and dad. He hadn’t wanted to worry them the night before—“I knew they’d freak out”—but now they needed to know.
Somewhere past Lincoln, the clock hit 10 a.m. Ngan pulled over. Reality set in: He’d missed his Olympic trials heat, the one he’d spent the last year training for, and far longer dreaming about, by less than an hour.
Later that morning, he’d arrive and walk into the CenturyLink Center in Omaha in a sleep-deprived daze, awed by its size and the flames that shot out when swimmers were introduced, like it was a circus or something, and all the Olympians walking around. He’d hug Stanley, and see another Columbia teammate, and congratulate them on their races. He’d congratulate Ervin, his fellow Hart alumnus, on finishing second in the 50 free and making the Olympic team, walking over with his phone aloft, FaceTiming their old high school coach (“My highlight of the weekend, seeing how happy Ervin was,” Ngan says). And later he’d go out in downtown Omaha, rubbing elbows with the best in the world.
In the end, Ngan never would crack that Gray’s Anatomy textbook, but he would make it back to Berkeley, welcomed with a round of applause from his classmates, and grind through his midterm, confident he’d passed (“Did pretty well, actually”). He’d add up the costs of the weekend—$895 flight, $500 car rental, $230 speeding ticket—and take a deep breath, then look into whether he could recoup some of the money from Delta (under a clause called “trip in vain”, usually employed by business flyers).
But for now, on Friday morning, Ngan was still in the moment. Still disappointed. Still wondering what might have been. He’d stopped for gas three times. Listened to hundreds of songs. Crashed through a box of Clif bars. In the end, he had beaten Google Maps, only Google Maps then beat him, stealing an hour when he needed it most. But something about the experience also energized him. Four years isn’t that far away. “Maybe I could give it another shot,” he says. “Who knows?”
Then Ngan pauses. “Though I think I’d book an earlier flight next time.”