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Drowned Out by Thunder

Laguna Hills' Carvin ponders what might have been if he'd swum well enough to join a U.S. relay team humbled by Australians in final.

September 20, 2000|RANDY HARVEY

SYDNEY, Australia — Here's the thing about the Olympics. For every athlete who wins, there are many more who don't. For every celebration, there are many more disappointments. I'm trying very hard here to avoid "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat," but there it is. I've said it.

Chad Carvin knew the agony. He tried to feel the thrill. After all, he had won a silver medal. But he wasn't sure that he had earned it. He was part of the United States' 800-meter freestyle relay team Tuesday morning that qualified for that night's final, but he didn't swim particularly well, and Coach Mark Schubert made the tough decision to replace Carvin.

Every coach for every team faces similar decisions. The Australians didn't use two swimmers in the final that they had used in the semifinal, including the celebrated Grant Hackett, and his triumphant teammates said later that they felt his pain.

"He's still a champion bloke," Todd Pearson said.

It can happen to the best of them. But no one wanted to see it happen to Carvin.

Too much has happened to him already.

Carvin, 26, of Laguna Hills was considered one of the world's best swimmers a year before the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, virtually a lock for a gold medal or two, when his times gradually began to rise. Depressed, he attempted suicide by swallowing sleeping pills. While he was in the hospital, doctors discovered the reason for his decline, a heart condition known as cardiomyopathy.

He watched the first day of the '96 U.S. Olympic trials on television and "broke down in tears." He came back, reestablished himself in the sport, and then was diagnosed with a degenerative back problem. Again, he came back, earning a place on the Olympic team this year in the 400 freestyle and 800 relay.

But he didn't have enough left once he arrived here. He was sixth in the 400 freestyle Saturday, seven seconds behind gold-medalist Thorpe, and couldn't convince Schubert that he belonged in the relay final with his swim Tuesday morning. He watched the race in street clothes, cheering on his teammates while not feeling much cheer. He still will receive a silver medal, in the mail.


Now for the thrill of victory. The Australians won the gold in the 800 relay in a world-record time, setting off, Pearson predicted, a "red-hot go" of a celebration throughout the country.

There is no more Cold War, just a wet one between the U.S. and Australian swimmers. I'd like to tell you I had a handle on it through the first four days of competition at the Summer Olympics, but it's too slippery for me. Apparently for Gary Hall Jr. too.

Hall, the best U.S. sprinter, predicted that the U.S. swimmers would smash the Aussies like guitars, then got fast-skinned by the Aussies in the 400-meter freestyle relay Saturday night. Then, after the Americans had a couple of good days, Hall proclaimed Tuesday morning that the Aussies had been "stopped . . . dead in their tracks."

Then the Aussies . . .

You get the idea. Asked about Hall on Tuesday night after the Australians had won two gold medals to the United States' one, one of their sprinters, William Kirby, said, "Hopefully, he'll be quiet for a day."

Susie O'Neill, Australia's Madame Butterfly, pumped up the volume at Sydney International Aquatic Center by winning the 200 freestyle. The 800 relay team, with Ian Thorpe leading off, Michael Klim swimming second and it didn't matter who swimming third and fourth, raised it to deafening proportions by leaving the rest of the field more than five seconds behind.

The Americans finished second, with anchor and USC freshman-to-be Klete Keller barely holding off the Netherlands' Pieter van den Hoogenband.

Keller's relay teammates were impressed, with the Australian swimmers, sure, but even more so with the 17,500 screaming fans.

"They went berserk," Jamie Rauch said.

Asked to compare it to any U.S. swimming crowd he had ever seen, Josh Davis laughed and said, "It really doesn't compare."

Long after the medal ceremony for the race was finished, the crowd stayed behind and sang and danced to "Down Under" by Men at Work.


Meantime, in the corridor, Schubert was consoling Carvin.

"It was really, really hard," an obviously pained Schubert said of his decision on Carvin. "I'll probably be second-guessing that one forever. Because you just never know. It was a situation where they were all so close, and I had to go with the numbers.

"That guy is one of the greatest swimmers in the world and has gone through so much to be here. There's nobody I have more respect for."

It was nice for Carvin to have Schubert's respect. He would rather have had his confidence.

"It was a real tough call for the coaches," he said. "Myself and all the relay guys this morning were within a few tenths of each other and they had to go with the fastest two even though it was so close.

"Seeing the relay was kind of bittersweet for me--sweet to see everyone do so well and get that silver. But I wasn't part of it. I wasn't part of the awards [ceremony.]

"It's nice to go home not empty-handed. But this is not what I envisioned. As I know, with my life, not everything goes according to plan."

As the Aussies did with Hackett, Carvin's teammates tried to lift his spirits.

"It was a team effort, and he was a part of the team," Davis said. "He's one of our leaders. When he says something, everyone listens."

Chad Carvin is a champion bloke.


Randy Harvey can be reached at his e-mail address:


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