It was not the climax Ken Carpenter had envisioned, a 40-mph crash in the final straightaway that sent him skidding, flat on his back, 20 meters short of the finish line. For Paul Swift, on the other hand, the end of the men's three-lap sprint finals last Friday evening at the U.S. Olympic Track Cycling Trials seemed a dream come true. While Carpenter was sliding to a stop at the edge of the infield grass, Swift was streaking across the line alone, his left fist raised in a victory salute.
But Swift's dream—and Carpenter's nightmare—ended a moment later. As he took his warm-down laps, Swift learned he had lost as the result of a lane violation that had nothing to do with Carpenter's spill. Carpenter crashes and wins. Swift finishes first and gets second. Carpenter goes on to Barcelona. Swift goes home to Kenosha, Wis.
The trials, held last week in Blaine, Minn., followed a simple recipe. Gather 227 of the best U.S. cyclists, toss them together in a large wooden bowl, mix at high speeds and cook under pressure for six days. Results: 10 Olympians (eight men and two women)—one for each of the six individual track events and four for the team pursuit—and an irresistible show for cycling fans. The bowl was the $1.7 million National Sports Center velodrome, America's only all-wood cycling venue. It is exceptionally fast and, most important, a duplicate of the Olympic velodrome in Barcelona. "This track finally puts American cyclists on a par with the Europeans," Carpenter said going into the trials.
Most observers expected Carpenter, 27 and an '88 Olympian, to dominate his event. He had won the last four national sprint championships and had not lost a race to another American in three years. "It was like they already had the press releases written: 'Carpenter wins trials,' " said Swift afterward.
The 26-year-old Swift began cycling when he was 15. The following year he suffered an aneurysm in a coronary artery and was confined to his bed for a month. It took him three years to regain his full strength. "Sometimes I feel like my whole career is a kind of fairy-tale comeback," says Swift.
After losing to Carpenter in the first race of the best-two-out-of-three finals, Swift, who was biding his time in the first half of the second race, suddenly swooped down from the highest part of the banking onto the backstretch and began a furious charge for home. The crowd of 1,788 in the velodrome was on its feet in whooping approval as Swift powered across the line two lengths ahead.
With calls of "Do it, Paul!" coining from the stands, Swift shadowed Carpenter at a crawl through the first lap of the deciding race. Carpenter was still in front as the sprinting began. And then Swift made the move that ended his fairy tale. Coming into the final turn, Carpenter was slightly ahead and holding the inside, or pole, position. For an instant, though, he moved up the banking, and Swift dived for the inside and began to power his way past Carpenter. Trackside marshals, ruling that Carpenter still controlled the sprint lane, flagged Swift for an illegal pass, and the race was officially over.
Yet it was far from over on the track, where the speeding riders were unaware of the marshals' ruling. Going around the final turn, pedaling frantically, the riders touched—hard. "We've banged before," Swift said later. "But this time I think it was deliberate. It was the first time Ken has had someone in front of him, and he panicked."
Carpenter insisted the contact was accidental. Whatever the cause, Carpenter went down, his head bouncing off the track. Obviously devastated by his disqualification, Swift never looked at Carpenter, who remained on the track for 20 minutes before being carted off to nearby Unity Hospital. After a CAT scan and the removal of several large splinters from his back, he was released.
Nearly 24 hours later, Carpenter stood on a podium in the infield to receive his first-place medal and Olympic team jersey. Fifty feet away, Swift sat under his team tent, blinking back tears. "I never expected it to come to this," he said softly. Carpenter, who will be among the medal favorites in Barcelona, seemed equally unsettled by his race's sudden and violent end. "It's always better to come across the line," he said. "To really win it. But I think I proved myself."