The shoulders were acting up again. That was Kristine Quance's
biggest worry. She had had rotator-cuff problems, same as some
big league pitchers, for most of 1994 and half of '95. The pain
had subsided last August, much to her relief. Three weeks ago it
returned. Just a hint. A touch.
"Not now," she told her shoulders.
"Please, not now," she repeated, asking in a nicer way.
These were the trials for the 1996 U.S. Olympic swimming
team--the one chance of a lifetime, if you wanted to get
dramatic--and what happened last week in the Indiana University
Natatorium in Indianapolis would color an entire career. You
swam, did you? Did you swim in the Olympics? These seven fretful
days and nights would determine the answers to questions you
would be hearing for the rest of your life.
March 18, 1996
Four years ago Quance, then a high school junior in Northridge,
Calif., and now a 20-year-old junior at Southern Cal, had tasted
the fickleness of the selection process. When the 1992 U.S.
Olympic Trials arrived at this same pool, she had been weakened
by a six-month case of mononucleosis, from which she was just
recovering. She finished seventh in the 100-meter breaststroke
and third in the 200 breast, one spot and one second away from
making the team. What would she have done without mono? Would
she have been a second faster? She would never know. She jumped
into the diving pool and cried and cried.
Now, the shoulder. The pain was a tease. Some days it would
visit. Some days it would disappear. What would happen when she
arrived here? She was relieved on the first morning of the meet,
the day of the 400-meter individual medley, that the pain seemed
to be gone. The 400 individual medley, she thought, was her best
event. All she had to do now was swim her brains out.
She swam her brains out. In the morning qualifying heat, she
swam faster than she had ever swum in a qualifier, finishing in
4:42.28, more than four seconds faster than Allison Wagner, the
next-fastest swimmer. Not only that, she swam easily, as easily
as she had ever swum. There was a moment of unadulterated
exhilaration. "For however many seconds, that was as good as I
can feel," she said. "Then ... everything, like, came crashing
down. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined what happened."
She was disqualified on a technicality. A judge picked out an
illegal turn from the backstroke to the breaststroke, a hairline
call on a rule that Quance said she did not know existed. Her
disbelief, joined by the disbelief of USC coach Mark Schubert,
led to an appeal. Three judges watched the replay. Sure enough,
the tape showed that in violation of the rules, Quance had not
fully rotated her body from a faceup backstroke position to a
facedown breaststroke position before she came out of the turn;
instead, her body was sideways as she propelled herself off the
pool wall. The appeal was rejected. She did not qualify for the
final. Richard Quick of Stanford, who will coach the U.S. women
swimmers at the Games in Atlanta this summer, was disheartened.
"There's such a thing in basketball as the no-call," he said
incontrovertibly. "This was the perfect place for a no-call.
What happened here very well could cost us a medal."
Quance cried. She spent the afternoon with family and friends
and, most of all, USC teammates, who gave her sympathy, but
every time she had a moment alone, she cried some more. She was
still entered in the 200 individual medley, the 100 and 200
breaststrokes, and the 200 butterfly, but her best event was
gone. What could happen the rest of the way?
"We were riding over to watch the 400 IM final that night in a
car, and someone was talking about a girl, a runner, who jumped
off a bridge after not qualifying for the Olympics," Quance
said. "I said from the backseat, 'So, where's the bridge?' My
coach told me to sit right there with him."
Wagner won the event. Whitney Metzler finished second to earn
the other spot on the U.S. team. Metzler said she knew she had a
chance when Quance was disqualified, which was terrible for
Quance but good luck for her. Quance, under control in the
stands until the finish, cried some more.
"I went back to the hotel, but I didn't sleep much that night,"
she said. "I didn't know what was going to happen next. The
phone was always ringing, people offering me encouragement. A
man sent me a fax, saying the same thing had happened to him and
that I should forget it and move along to the next race, that he
didn't forget it and move along and never qualified at all. I
tried to concentrate on the next race, the 100 breaststroke, but
it's far from my best race. I really hadn't trained for that."
Next day. Next night. Next emotion. In the 100 breaststroke,
Quance finished second to 14-year-old Amanda Beard of Irvine,
Calif., whose performance in the trials established her as this
year's female swimming prodigy. Beard, who at 5'3" and 92 pounds
looks even younger than 14, took her place on the Olympic team
as almost a natural progression. Olympics, sure. Easy as winning
a three-legged race at the county fair. Doesn't everyone go to
the Olympics sometime? She answered questions about her teddy
bear, which was with her at poolside, and her parakeets, which
were back home. Quance had the mature response. She was going to
Atlanta! The Olympics! She had the perspective that can only be
learned by misfortune. "I don't know what it all means," she
said. "I never expected this. It shows, I guess, what emotion
can do. I swam angry tonight. I don't know what it proves about
myself, except that I was very determined."
This time she didn't sleep much because she was so excited. How
could her emotions of two successive days be so different? She
had no idea. She took a day off and finally got some rest, and
then the cycle curiously was repeated. Last Saturday, in the 200
breast, her second-best event, she finished third to Beard and
another 14-year-old, Jilen Siroky. She missed qualifying for the
Olympics by .13 of a second. She was devastated again. "I was
just so drained," she said. "Why does everything have to be so
hard? You dream about the way things will happen, and they just
don't. Why not? I asked my coach if I could just go home. I'd
Schubert told her to stay and swim some more. Next day. Next
event, the 200 IM. Quance arrived at the pool with a negative
attitude. She began talking to herself. O.K., so she hadn't
qualified in her two best events. Hadn't she at least qualified?
Wasn't she going to the Olympics? Wasn't that what she had
always wanted to do? The names of the qualifiers, day by day,
were painted on the large wall behind the diving boards at one
end of the natatorium. Wasn't her name on the wall? What was her
problem? She should simply swim. She should simply have fun.
The fun brought her onto the team in a second event. She
finished second to Wagner by .05, 2:13.76 to 2:13.71. Top two go
to Atlanta. Elation again. It was almost too much to bear. "I'm
just so happy," she said. "I don't know why it's working out
this way, but it's O.K.
It's just a shift in emotions, one day to the next. I wasn't
prepared for this." She seemed to be a one-woman Broadway show
encompassing all the emotions in the women's trials. (Maybe you
caught the review: KRISTINE QUANCE IS THE U.S. OLYMPIC
TRIALS--The New York Times.) The men's side of the trials ran
fairly close to form, with a collection of familiar names and
five lanky University of Michigan swimmers, led by world-record
holder Tom Dolan in the 400 IM, filling the prescribed slots on
the wall. Only former world-record holder Melvin Stewart, trying
to make a comeback at age 27 in the 100 and 200 butterflies, was
a notably unexpected loser.
The women were a collection of surprises. From the first race of
the meet, the 100 freestyle, in which former world-record holder
Jenny Thompson finished third and Amy Van Dyken finished first,
surprises were everywhere. As soon as you would say that youth
had arrived, with Beard leading three 14-year-olds onto the
roster--the first time three swimmers so young had made the same
U.S. Olympic team--there was 24-year-old Janet Evans making her
third Olympic team, winning the 400 free in familiar form as
15-year-old Brooke Bennett, her chatty nemesis, finished fourth.
As soon as you would say Evans was in control, here was Bennett
reversing form and beating Evans in the 800 free. Here was
28-year-old Angel Martino, back mostly because the Olympics will
be held in her home state of Georgia, winning the 100 butterfly
and finishing second in the 100 free. Martino, who was kicked
off the 1988 Olympic team and banned from competition for two
years for a positive drug test after taking what she claimed
were birth-control pills, was also looking for a little
redemption. There was 15-year-old Jessica Foschi, not banned
after testing positive last summer for a steroid, failing to
make the team.
Up. Down. A lot of sideways. These were the women's trials.
"I'm really surprised," Martino said after winning the 100 fly.
"This isn't my best event. I haven't practiced it a lot."
"I haven't either," said Van Dyken, who finished second. "So
there it is, kids. If you want to make the Olympic team, don't
practice the butterfly."
The women's performances, except for Beard's in the
breaststroke, weren't exceptional. This U.S. women's team,
unlike many of its predecessors, will be an international
underdog. The Chinese, the Germans and the Australians will be
hard to handle in Atlanta. The U.S. women will need some work
between now and this summer.
"Maybe this is for the best," Quance said. "There were so many
high expectations [for the U.S. women's team] in 1992, I think
they hurt. This way there's a lot youth on the team, with people
like Amanda. There are veterans, with Janet and Angel. There are
first-time Olympians like me. This is a group where anything can
Anything can happen? Qualified in her worst events, not
qualified in her best events--with her shoulders feeling
fine--she should know. She definitely should know.