BEIJING - When athletes win multiple Olympic medals, they sometimes say the first one is the sweetest but Kara Lynn Joyce insists "it keeps getting sweeter and sweeter" every time.
On Sunday morning, when Joyce looked at the silver medal she helped the US 4x100-meter free relay team earn, all she could think of was how grateful she was - not just to be holding the third Olympic medal of her career, but to be in Beijing at all.
Joyce had been planning to qualify for six events in Beijing, but raced poorly at the US Trials in July and headed home with no chance of adding to her two relay medals in Athens. Her absence on the Olympic roster was just one of many disappointments among athletes who were considered to be virtual locks for the team. But midway through Joyce's flight home from Omaha, Neb., she received stunning news.
"I was on a layover in Chicago and got a message on my phone from my coach, Jack Bauerle, saying that the USOC decided to put me on the team," she said.
A vacancy had opened when Dara Torres announced that she was relinquishing her chance to compete in the 100m freestyle in order to focus on the 50m free in Beijing. At Trials, the top-six swimmers in the 100m free qualified to compete on the 4x100m relay, so Joyce, who finished seventh in that event, was suddenly eligible for the team.
"I was completely blown away," Joyce said. "I was so excited and crying."
Soon, she found herself reviving plans she had recently dashed, and came to the team training camp at Stanford. Torres greeted her with a hug and said, "Welcome."
But Joyce's confidence had taken a hit at Trials, where she attributed her sub-par performances to the way she had tapered. "Tapering is a finicky thing. You come down in yardage and it's a learning experience every time," she said.
After team training camps at Stanford and, more recently, in Singapore, Joyce felt more and more competitive and on Saturday night in the 4x100m free heats, she swam the lead-off leg for the US and set a personal record of 54.13.
As a result of her fast time, Joyce was rewarded with a spot in Sunday's final. With President Bush and his father, the former president, looking on at the Water Cube, Natalie Coughlin led-off and put the US into third place and Lacey Nymeyer maintained the position. Joyce, swimming next, moved the US into second place with the fastest relay split she'd ever swum (53.98). Dara Torres anchored the team with the second fastest time among all the competitors, but it was not enough to overtake the Netherlands and the US earned the silver medal for the second consecutive Games. Torres, 41, became the oldest swimmer ever to win an Olympic swimming medal, the 10th of her career. And Joyce was happy to contribute, but even happier to be there at all.
The saga will continue later this week when Joyce contests the 50m freestyle. In another twist of fate, Joyce became eligible to swim an additional event in Beijing after the Trials' second-place finisher in the 50m free, Jessica Hardy, failed a doping test. Joyce had placed fourth at Trials (only the top two made the team), but team selection criteria prevented the third-place finisher, Lara Jackson, from being added once the final roster had been set.
Joyce and Torres will again represent the US when that event begins on Friday with the heats. From now until then, Joyce said her only plans are: "I'll be trying to recover."
Physically, emotionally, dramatically.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.