Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Omaha Trail

LAST THURSDAY, 23-YEAR-OLD Alex Ngan arrived at the airport in Oakland more than an hour early, just as you're supposed to. He cruised through security with only his backpack and a duffel bag, which held his swimsuit, goggles and a change of clothes, and 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 was scheduled for 10.

Only the 4:15 takeoff became 4:40, then 5:15. Ngan checked his itinerary: 37 minutes to connect in Salt Lake. The plane was now 40 minutes late. It was going to be tight. Very tight.

At 5:33 p.m., when the flight lifted off, Ngan put his head back and visualized his strokes for the next morning. A 2015 graduate of Columbia who had been accepted to the prestigious UC Berkeley--UC San Francisco Joint Medical Program, Ngan had whittled his 50 free times lower and lower over the past year until, in May, at the Speedo Grand Challenge in Irvine, Calif., he touched the wall, looked up and saw 23.20 on the scoreboard. The cutoff for qualification was 23.29. It was, he recalls, a feeling of "pure bliss."

Finally the plane touched down at 7:54, 11 minutes before Ngan's next flight. He hit the tunnel in a dead sprint and by 8:07 could glimpse the connecting gate. Then he saw the closed doors and the empty spot on the tarmac. The gate agent apologized; he had tried to hold the flight. With no other planes leaving that night for cities even close to Omaha, Ngan ran toward the car-rental booths. If he drove all night, he might make it.

By 9, Ngan was on the road. He bought two large Red Bulls and a Monster drink at a convenience store, then pulled up Google Maps: 941 miles. 12 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. He tore off into the night on I-80.

He pushed the Hyundai Veloster past 85 mph, up to 90, then 95. On his phone, he watched the ETA inch down. Utah became Wyoming. Then, at 10:14 p.m., as Ngan zoomed through Uinta County, he heard a noise that made his stomach sink. Sirens. Worse than the $230 fine was the delay: 15 minutes lost. By the time he pulled back on the highway, his ETA was past 10 a.m. Making matters tougher, he'd now need to keep within 10 miles of the speed limit. Still, it was possible.

Ngan drove on into the predawn, imagining the race. He felt strong, confident, positive he would set a PR. Sure, his chances of actually qualifying for Rio 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 switched to Apple Maps, to see if it provided a different route. Upon doing so, he almost yelped. Apple Maps' 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 the rest of the way, he wouldn't make it in time for his race.

Past Lincoln, the clock hit 10. Ngan pulled over. He'd missed the Olympic trials, his dream as a kid in Santa Clarita, Calif., by less than an hour.

Later that morning, Ngan walked into the CenturyLink Center in Omaha in a sleep-deprived daze, awed by the size and the flames that shot out when swimmers were introduced, as if it were a circus. He'd stopped for gas three times. Listened to hundreds of songs. Wolfed down a box of Clif Bars. He had beaten Google Maps, only Google Maps then beat him. 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."

941 miles. Estimated time of arrival: 10 a.m. exactly, the time of his Olympic qualifying heat. Still, Alex Ngan felt strangely optimistic. He could beat Google Maps.

What's your worst travel experience?

Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @SI_ChrisBallard