Somewhere between his ankle surgery and his shoulder surgery, or perhaps it was between his shoulder surgery and his back surgery, Australian swimmer Michael Klim began to feel he'd been left behind.
"The world of swimming has progressed to another level, I believe, and I don't know if I can really come back to my best," he said. "I have to be better than what I was. I had the world record in the 100-meter butterfly, and in the time I was gone, Ian Crocker came in and Michael Phelps came in and took those marks further."
A member of the Australian team that's competing at this weekend's Janet Evans Invitational meet in Long Beach, Klim, 26, is making yet another comeback for the Athens Games. And although he wasn't in prime shape at the Australian Olympic trials and made the team for two relays but no individual events, he's proceeding with the same determination and spirit that have carried him through almost as many rehabilitation sessions as victory celebrations.
"To be honest, you do go through stages, especially after the second and third operations," he said when asked if he doubted he'd return. "Initially, you say, 'These things happen.' But when you go through it the third or fourth time, well, for most athletes, rehab is so important because it's so competitive out there that you have to be at 100% every single time. The road to getting back there can be quite difficult....
"I've been privileged to be in the position I am, where in my country I can focus solely on my sport and it's my job. I think we are respected as athletes at home and I've got the opportunity to do it. So, as long as my body is still holding on, I feel that I've gotten a lot from my country, and this is sort of my way of giving back to them. I'd like to persevere as long as I possibly can. I'm very privileged to experience great things, like to come racing here in Long Beach and represent my country."
Klim was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 200 freestyle in 1996 but didn't make the Atlanta Olympic finals in his specialty and took home a bronze medal in the 400 medley relay. Two years later, at the World Championships in Perth, Australia, he was a dominant force in winning four gold medals, two silvers and a bronze.
At Sydney, competing as the world-record holder and favorite before his swim-fanatic compatriots, he was upset by Lars Frolander of Sweden in the 100 butterfly. But he won gold in the 400 and 800 freestyle relays and silver in the 400 medley relay.
He's scheduled to swim two freestyle relays at Long Beach and Athens.
Leigh Nugent, the Australian team's coach, called him "such a wonderful team man" and said Klim might also swim the medley relay.
"He's been stricken a bit with injuries and probably feels he hasn't been able to move through his career as planned," Nugent said. "So it was important for him to reconstitute himself and be able to prove to himself he's capable of moving ahead.
"He fell short a little bit at the trials with his preparation. There's only so much you can do after an injury.
"Once he got the trials out of the road, which was an unsettling period, he was able to know where he's at and prepare accordingly."
Klim acknowledged that he wasn't in ideal shape at the trials and said he was making the best of his relay assignments.
"In a way, it also enables me to compete without too much pressure," he said. "Going to Sydney, I was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 100-meter butterfly and I was competitive in the 100 freestyle, so I had a lot of expectations. I'm using this as sort of a steppingstone to the rest of my career."
Klim and many of his teammates recently spent three weeks training at altitude in Flagstaff, Ariz., and will return to Australia after this meet. Nugent said he hasn't set any expectations for any of the swimmers and won't read too much into their performances, but for Klim, every race is a race to stay ahead of injuries and the youngsters trying to overtake him.
"For us as a team, it's important to test ourselves as far as where we are with our fitness," he said. "I'm certainly going to be going out there and trying my hardest.
"I enjoy racing outdoors. I had my best meet ever, in Perth at the  World Championships, outdoors. It also gives you good vibes on the beach, and I think this is going to be very good."
Here and There
Deena Kastor of Mammoth Lakes will continue her Olympic marathon preparations by running in the Circle of Friends New York Mini 10K Saturday in Central Park. She also will compete in the U.S. half-marathon championships next weekend at Duluth, Minn.
"I'll never pass up a chance to run in New York City," Kastor said. "I plan on being aggressive."
Joan Benoit Samuelson, winner of the first women's Olympic marathon in 1984, plans to "run through" Saturday's race because of Achilles' tendon problems that caused her to withdraw from the Olympic marathon trials.
Samuelson said she was impressed with the Athens women's marathon team of Kastor, Colleen De Reuck and Jen Rhines.