The Trials

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW and this is The Score.

When you sit down to watch the Olympics, you assume you-re watching the best on the planet. Not so. Take the 400 meter freestyle this year in Athens, for example. The wunderkind swimmer from the Sydney Games in 2000, Ian -the Torpedo- Thorpe from Australia is still the world champion in that event. But you won-t get a chance to see Ian go for gold in the 400 in Athens because Ian just this week slipped off the starting blocks at his Trials and couldn-t recover to finish in the top two to qualify for his event. Does this make sense to you? If you have the flu or are perhaps upset by a family tragedy or you slip off the blocks and you don-t qualify in one race in March, even if you-re clearly the best in the world and should represent your country, you don-t get to compete in that event in August?

With ten weeks to go before Opening Ceremonies, we are heavy into Olympic Team selections for all events in all sports all over the world and, for most, the pressure of the Trials is even higher than the Games themselves. If you-re a tennis player and you sprain your ankle badly just before Wimbledon, you-re not happy about it, but you have only one year to wait for the next Wimbledon. And you always have the other Grand Slam tournaments to play before that.

If you-re a discus thrower, you do have yearly national and world championships but the significant moment for many Olympic-sport athletes comes once every four years. It-s a very short, very dramatic window of opportunity. And the Trials to qualify for the Team make for another short, crucial time when you must hit your peak.

Every sport, country by country, has different methods for Team selection but many times it comes down to a performance at a one-time Trials event. In 1960, the best sprint swimmer in the world, no question, was Jeff Farrell. Six days before the Olympic Trials, Jeff had an emergency appendectomy. With his rib cage heavily bandaged, he gingerly dived off the blocks at the Trials but finished 4th in the two sprints and didn-t swim his events in Rome. The much-anticipated showdown between Maurice Greene and Michael Johnson in Sydney was thwarted because of the Trials system, too. Greene was the king of sprints, gold medal winner in the classic 100-meter dash. Johnson was the undisputed champ, gold medal winner at 400 meters. Everyone was looking forward to seeing these two phenoms race at the middle distance between their specialties, the 200. But at the Trials both Greene and Johnson were injured the day of the 200 so neither could race that event in Sydney. A man named Floyd Heard represented the USA in the 200 Down Under and didn-t qualify for the final heat.

Remember the Dan & Dave show? Coming up to the -92 Games in Barcelona, there was an advertising campaign to stir public interest in the decathlon between then-world-champion Dan O-Brien and his rival Dave Johnson. Dan & Dave. Two good looking guys vying for gold in the centerpiece event of Olympic history, the decathlon. The test of ten varied events from throwing a javelin to running a mile that winds up naming the gold medallist -The World-s Greatest Athlete-.

Well, at the Trials, Dan O-Brien made a critical mistake. He passed three times at an early height in the pole vault and then missed his three attempts at a later height. With a zero in that event, he was disqualified and didn-t make the team at all. Dave Johnson went on to win a bronze medal but the Barcelona Games should-have-been rivalry disintegrated in the pole vault pit at the Trials.

When you watch the medal ceremonies this summer in Athens, don-t assume that each athlete who bows his head to receive his gold medal is the best in the world. He will have proven himself the best that day in Greece. But there could likely be someone better, looking on in pain and disappointment, who hit a snafu a few months earlier at the Olympic Trials.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW and that-s The Score.



Diana Nyad