Megan Jendrick knows competitive ecstasy and agony — both by the slimmest of margins
Megan Jendrick bounces back from a painfully close elimination from the 2004 Olympic team by earning a 2008 trip to Beijing — by an even slimmer margin.
Special to The Seattle Times
It has taken four years for swimmer Megan Jendrick to put 11-hundredths of a second behind her.
Four years, and one goggle strap.
In the 100 breaststroke in 2004, as Puyallup's golden girl and two-time Olympic champion Megan Quann, she was out-touched at the wall by rival Tara Kirk of Bremerton to finish third by 11-hundredths of a second at the trials, missing the Olympic team.
Four years later, at the trials earlier this month, Jendrick eked out an Olympic berth by one one-hundredth of a second, beating none other than Kirk.
When the margin is that narrow in two too-close-to-call races, you have to wonder. Is fate issuing a makeup call? Or is it just happenstance?
Hard to know. This much is sure: Megan Jendrick is going back to the Olympics, and few will appreciate a second trip more.
In the four years between trials, Jendrick retired and got married. She coached. She unretired and changed coaches. She told just about everyone who asked that she was over it — the double-whammy of losing so much by so little, and to Kirk, who for years had swum in Jendrick's shadow.
Turns out she fibbed.
"When practices got hard, I'd definitely think about how she just barely touched me out," Jendrick said, "and that I wanted to be back on top."
How do you account for hundredths of a second, much less one of them? It's cruelly random that Olympic fates can hinge on the time it takes for half a sneeze.
Then again, maybe it's not so random. Swimmers routinely shave their bodies before big meets, looking to reduce drag. Jendrick went further.
Getting ready to trim her fingernails for the 2008 trials, Jendrick stopped. She remembered 2004; she had cut them then and lost.
"I was like, 'Nah, I'm not going to cut them until I'm done racing at trials,' " she told herself.
Before she had her hair cut, she remembered 2004.
"She's been wearing it shorter for the last eight to 10 months," said Nathan Jendrick, her husband of four years, explaining how less hair means a better streamline.
For her entire career, one that includes two gold medals at age 16 in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Jendrick wore her goggles on the outside of her swim cap, straps flapping. Her husband, a self-described "detail guy," bugged her to wear the straps inside to reduce drag. But the elastic bands pulled at her hair.
Two weeks before the trials, Nathan tried again.
"Here's his exact quote," she says, laughing. " 'You should give it a try again because you never know when it could come down to a hundredth of a second.' "
At trials, Jendrick wore two caps, one for comfort underneath the straps, another on top.
"I tried it a couple times and said, 'OK, it's not so bad,' " she said.
Up in the nosebleed section of the Qwest Center in Omaha for the trials, during the 100 breaststroke final, Jendrick's parents, Erin and Tom Quann, had a queasy feeling when they saw their daughter fourth to the wall at the halfway mark.
"We were like, 'Megan, oh gosh, you're taking your first 50 out slow,' " Erin Quann said. But they forgot her reputation, cemented in Sydney, for a strong second half.
"I knew that if I just picked it up that I would be able to make up a lot of that ground," Jendrick said.
With 25 yards to go, a swim that was four years in the making boiled down to a singular exhortation.
"Swim real fast! Swim real fast! Swim real fast!" Jendrick thought.
Four heads surged forward at the wall, seemingly at the same time. But the Quanns knew it was a swimmer's hands hitting the wall, rather than heads, that mattered.
"We actually didn't think she had made it," Erin said. Then the screen flashed results: 1. Jessica Hardy, 1:06.87; 2. Megan Jendrick, 1:07.50; 3. Tara Kirk, 1:07.51.
One one-hundredth of a second between Beijing and staying home.
For both Sean Hutchison, Jendrick's coach at the King Aquatic Club who guided her through a 3 ½-year comeback, and her husband Nathan, the result brought the same emotion: Elation, then immense relief.
"There was a big exhale," Hutchison said of their postrace hug. "It felt like a big release. Eight years of release."
An hour after the race, she ran into Kirk coming out of drug testing. It was an awkward moment. The two are not friends, but Jendrick knew exactly how Kirk felt. Nothing she could say would help.
"She was obviously upset, you could tell by looking at her," Jendrick said of Kirk, who won 2004 Olympic silver in the medley relay and was sixth in the 100 breaststroke. "She was walking with her head down and she looked at me and said, 'Good job.' And I said 'Thank you.' I kind of left it at that.
"It always sucks to get third at trials. It doesn't matter if it's by a hundredth of a second or a couple tenths of a second. That's not the place you want to be in."
Jendrick said she always figured she'd make the team again in 2004, then hang up her swimsuit. But retirement didn't take. She asked to coach at her old pool, and saw how much fun 5-year-olds, who could barely swim a pool length, had belly-flopping into the water.
As the guest of an Olympic sponsor, the Jendricks traveled to Athens and arrived in time to see the U.S. women's 400 medley relay team get beaten and its world record broken. In 2000, Jendrick had helped set that record at the Sydney Games.
So it was back to the pool. Jendrick's next goal: A medal or two in Beijing (she didn't qualify in the 200 breaststroke but will likely race in the 400 medley relay).
Australian Leisel Jones holds the 100-breaststroke world record with an eye-popping 1:05.09, nearly two seconds faster than Jendrick's career-best 1:07.05 — a huge margin in swimming.
"When I dive in the pool, I'm there to win and swim as fast as I possibly can," Jendrick said. "It's not different swimming against the world-record holder. On any given day, anyone can be beaten. That day can come in Beijing."
Erin Quann had hoped 2004 wasn't the end of it for her daughter. Now, four years later, 11-hundredths of a second seems almost a lifetime ago.
"A part of me was hoping she'd try again," Erin Quann said. "It makes you a more well-rounded person. What athlete do you know, professional or otherwise, who has not had ups and downs? You can't win all the time.
"You experience the full range of emotions, winning and losing. You get a full range of perspective. It's hard to go through.
"Now that she's gone through that, it's even cooler."
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