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Swimming Lesson

HOW'S HAYLEYMCGREGORY doing these days? Well, how would you be doing if, after thousandsupon thousands of hours of preparation, your dream was crushed in a fifth of asecond? Bitterness, despondency and a long weekend with Jim Beam come to mymind, and that's just for starters.

And this wassupposed to be her year. A gregarious 22-year-old with a cascade of browncurls, McGregory is one of the best backstrokers in the world. Indeed, at onepoint, the best. During the U.S. Olympic Trials last month McGregory set theworld record in the 100 meters at 59.15. Time to pack for Beijing, right? Notquite. You see, McGregory made the mistake of swimming her best race during thepreliminary round, and in the next heat Natalie Coughlin turned in a 59.03. ForMcGregory, it was sort of like being elected president only to have Congresspass a 15-minute term limit during her inauguration. To make the team she stillhad to advance through the semis, then finish in the top two in the finals.

For a moment, itseemed she had. With Coughlin in front, McGregory and Margaret Hoelzer appearedto hit the wall simultaneously. Only they didn't, of course, because nothing isever simultaneous in swimming. So the women craned their necks toward thescoreboard. By .2 of a second—less time than it takes to gulp—Hoelzer hadprevailed. McGregory covered her mouth in horror, as if witnessing a gruesomeaccident. Despite owning the second-fastest time ever, she wouldn't be racingin Beijing.

At least she hadone more chance: the 200-meter backstroke. In the final she tore through thepool and held the lead going into the final turn, then touched the wall only tolook up and see she'd come in ... third, this time by .77.

Forgive McGregoryfor feeling cursed. At the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2004 she also came in third.Twice. She missed Athens by .7 of a second in the 100-meter backstroke and .54in the 200. (Cruel Irony Department: Her "losing" time in this year's100-meter finals would have won gold at the '04 Games.) Think about that thenext time you want to karate-kick a trash can because you missed the 8:05 tothe office. You may have to wait 30 minutes. McGregory had to wait four years.Only to have it happen again.

Her friends,however well-intentioned, couldn't comfort her. "They have no idea whatyou're feeling," McGregory says. "They think they're helping, butthey're not." So she lay on her L-shaped couch in her tiny Austin apartmentfor four days, watching reruns on the Food Network and mulling the future. Shethought about finishing school at Texas, about a career in theater, about thephysical toll of swimming—in Speedo years, 22 is ancient. She mused on theopportunity she passed up to swim for the country of her birth, England, wherethe competition is less rigorous. ("I thought it was a cop-out," shesays. "The easy way to the Games.") Ultimately, McGregory realized whatshe had to do. She called her coach, Randy Reese, and broke the news: Shewouldn't be showing up for practice.

Not that day atleast. McGregory wanted one more afternoon on the couch. After all, she'd needher strength. She had a new goal: "Make the 2012 Games, my bodywilling."

Wait a second.What happened to wallowing in self-pity? "I could easily think of it asunfair," McGregory says. "But once I realized I wasn't a failure inanyone else's eyes I realized I needed to snap out of it and grow up." Herphilosophy is one any kid playing sports could learn from. Hell, any adult."Maybe I'm learning some valuable lessons here and will get to pass them onto someone else," says McGregory. "Maybe it's a lesson I'm not aware ofyet."

So she's in thepool again, churning forward. Sure, she'll watch the Olympics, "if I happento be in front of the TV," but she has other priorities. The U.S. OpenSwimming Championships begin on July 29 in Minneapolis. Hoelzer and Coughlinwon't be there, and Bob Costas won't be breathing gravitas into the event, butit's still a big meet. No doubt you've got plenty on your agenda that weekend,but take a moment if you can to think of McGregory, the swimmer who could havebeen broken but isn't.

At least oneperson will be rooting hard for her—her boyfriend, Justin Mortimer, who mayunderstand better than anyone how McGregory feels. You see, Mortimer competedin the 2004 U.S. trials too, in the 1,500-meter freestyle. He had a great race,turned in one of his best times.

You can probablyguess where he finished.

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Hayley McGregory covered her mouth, as if witnessing agruesome accident. Despite having the second-fastest time ever, she didn'tqualify for Beijing.