Primrose-Smith can't say her failed Olympic pursuit motivated her to greater successes out of the pool, but it may have subconsciously led her back on the Olympic trail.
"My urge to achieve predates that," she said.
Her father was a history professor and coach in Baltimore, her mother a teacher. Recently,
her mother showed Primrose-Smith an evaluation from her kindergarten teacher.
"It said I always had to be the first down the hill," she said, "the first up the hill, the first to raise my hand. I had this drive to win. I had to be the best. That's when I was 5, when I didn't even know what the Olympics was."
Her Olympic experience in 1984
rekindled athletic memories, stirred emotions, established valuable contacts and ultimately landed her, on Aug. 1, 1989, the job of running the U.S. Olympic Festival in Los Angeles.
She arrived six months late after replacing Earl Duryea, who was fired. Her assignment was not enviable: to stage an Olympic-clone event with limited funds in a fickle, sprawling, entertainment-soaked, smog-choked metropolis that experienced the real Olympics only seven years earlier.
This wasn't Oklahoma City, a one-time Festival site, where the patrons poured in from the outskirts to get a sense of Olympic competition.
Primrose-Smith would be responsible for coordinating a 10-day event involving 3,000 U.S. amateur athletes in 36 sports.
She would be expected to establish an Olympic "spirit" of competition without pretending it was at all comparable to the spectacle of 1984.
"The budget in 1984 was half a billion dollars," she said. "Our budget is $15 million. We are not seeking to replicate the '84 Olympics. We are trying to reignite the Olympic support and fever."
As the first woman and former athlete named executive director of a U.S. Olympic Festival, Primrose-Smith thinks she adds a different perspective.
"I think it's significant that I was an athlete more than I'm a woman," she said. "Having been an athlete and competed on the international level, I think it really gives me insight into what it means for the athlete who is trying to make the Olympics. That's the only reason we're here--for the athletes."
Primrose said her training as a swimmer has helped her cope with the long hours and the meticulous chore of coordinating an event of such diversity and magnitude.
"What I've had to learn is pacing, and I do think that has to do with my training," she said. "Being an athlete, you always have a goal--a certain time you need to meet, a certain Olympic trial or a gold medal. You learn to put up with disappointments and losses along the way. You've got to pace yourself."
Organization is her strength. Primrose-Smith said she learned the technique in high school when she was trying to balance her swimming career with the demands of an all-girls' prep school.
"If you didn't organize it well, you just became a mess," she said. "I learned to compartmentalize things and methodically approach them. That's really helped me here."
Her goals for the Festival are modest. Success here means breaking even financially, which hinges on ticket sales. The goal is an attendance of 500,000.
"Ticket sales are the key factor at this point," she said, 10 days before the opening ceremony. "Will the public come out and support this? It all has to translate into ticket sales. I don't know how the public's going to react."
In a few weeks, the games over, Primrose-Smith will close down shop and move on to something else.
"I don't know what I'm going to do after this," she acknowledged.
It is the transient nature of Olympic events.
She explains: "My job is to plan, manage, implement the Olympic Festival from nothing to something to nothing again. I have to disband this whole place. I came here and there was nothing. I had to find office space, furniture, hire staff, train staff, work with the Olympic committees. Then it disappears and all of us look for work."
Along the way, somewhere between the tension and Taekwondo, there will be a few more cherished memories, some life experiences, perhaps another chance to relive, vicariously, the missing moments denied because of one split second.
Primrose-Smith: "The opening ceremonies? Oh, I'm sure that will bring tears to my eyes. And that music (the John Williams theme), that still brings goose bumps. I'm really a sucker for this."