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How the pain of finishing fourth at the Olympics can forever change an athlete

A stumble on sport's biggest stage can haunt Olympic athletes for years. It can also give them a new way to look at life.

This story appeared in the August 22, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

On July 10, 1912, in the 1,500-meter run at the Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Abel Kiviat of the U.S. held the lead entering the final turn. Kiviat, from Staten Island, N.Y., was about eight meters from the finish line when Englishman Arnold Jackson moved ahead. Jackson finished in 3:56.8; Kiviat in 3:56.9.

Even 72 years later winning a silver medal was little consolation for Kiviat. In an interview at age 91 with the Los Angeles Times, he said, "I wake up sometimes and say, 'What the heck happened to me?' It's like a nightmare."

On Aug. 1, 2012, at the Olympics in London, Americans Sara Hendershot and Sarah Zelenka were rowing in the 2,000-meter women's pair with no coxswain race. At the 1,500-meter mark they were in a dead heat with the Australians for third place. When they crossed the finish line, they looked up to see they had come in fourth, 0.2 of a second behind New Zealand.

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Hendershot has a permanent reminder of that moment. "I have this giant picture that I printed out on the door of my bedroom of our boat crossing the finish line just a foot behind third place," says Hendershot, 28. "It's going to stick with me forever."

Hendershot and Kiviat are not alone in their anguish. Olympians who finish second or fourth are often unhappy. A landmark 1995 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists, despite finishing lower. The reasoning? With silver, a gold medal was tantalizingly possible. With bronze, at least it's better than the alternative—not medaling at all.

Indeed, the near miss can engender incredible disappointment and second-guessing. "I watched my race, and I saw so many mistakes," Hendershot says, referring in particular to her pacing at the start. "I realized that if I could have that many mistakes and still be that close, I would do so much better next time."

The possibility of more is an alluring inducement for Olympians and non-Olympians alike. A 2009 study in Neuron found that near misses in gambling are more disturbing than losing by a large margin and actually increase a person's desire to keep competing.

That is what happened to Hendershot. Had she won a medal, the 2010 Princeton graduate was planning to accept a job offer on Wall Street. Instead, she got back in the boat and worked toward qualifying for Rio.

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Hendershot, who lives in Boston, decided to train outside the structure of U.S. Rowing because of disagreements with the staff. She also recruited Zelenka, who now goes by Sarah McIlduff, out of retirement to chase Olympic glory again. At the National Selection Regatta in Chula Vista, Calif., in March, a feeder event into the U.S. trials, they finished sixth and then were left off the Olympic team.

"I'm devastated," says Hendershot, four months later. "I killed myself this cycle. It's definitely painful."

Hendershot's pain may be eased some by the fact that she had already started her journey toward a postrowing life. In 2014 she and Mike Lombardi, another former Princeton rower whom she married in '15, began planning Project Up, which launched this June as a Boston-based training and coaching business that focuses on getting people of all athletic ability to train harder in a shorter amount of time. This type of training benefited Hendershot's times in the water, and she hopes it will help others do the same. Since its inception, the couple count a pair of American Olympic rowers, London bronze medalist Glenn Ochal and Rio fifth-place finisher Andrew Campbell, as clients. "There's no way I'll be able to give up rowing completely," says Hendershot. "[But] I'm realizing how completely fulfilled Project Up is making me."

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Hendershot used the 0.2 of a missing second to change her life. Likewise, Abel Kiviat didn't let 0.1 of a second divorce him from the sport. A clerk in Manhattan's federal courthouse for 41 years, he often attended track meets at Madison Square Garden. In 1984, Kiviat carried the Olympic torch in Los Angeles. In '85, six years before he died at 99, he was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.

There are 306 Olympic events this year, meaning hundreds more athletes will know the disappointment that Kiviat and Hendershot felt. On Aug. 7, at the women's road cycling race in Rio, Mara Abbott, a 30-year-old from Boulder, Colo., in her first and likely last Olympics, held the lead entering the final turn. She looked behind her with about 250 meters left to see a group of three riders. At the 150-meter mark, the trio reeled her in. Anna van der Breggen of the Netherlands won the gold in 3:51:27. Abbott finished in 3:51:31, in fourth place.

"I punched a wall," says Abbott of her reaction. "It made a mark."

Yet Abbott already has perspective on coming so close. "I know that this is going to lead to something better," she says. "But at the moment, it's not entirely clear what that is."

Abbott is learning what more than a century of Olympians have discovered. A dream can end in a fraction of a second. But it can also be all the time it takes to change your life.