Redemption by the Smallest of Margins
Six days before the 100-meter breast stroke final at the 2008 Olympic Trials, Megan Jendrick got a haircut, hoping to streamline the profile of her swim cap so it would create less drag. But she pooh-poohed her husband's suggestion to wear her swim cap over her goggle strap so it, too, would create less drag.
"No, no, I don't care," said Jendrick (née Quann). Eight years earlier, at the Sydney Olympics, Quann won the gold medal in the 100m breast stroke as a 16-year-old with her goggle strap flapping.
"If it comes down to hundredths of a second," Nathan Jendrick warned, "you'll care."
She relented, put her cap over her goggles, and that's exactly what happened.
Tuesday night, in the 100m breast stroke final, Jendrick edged out the third-place finisher Tara Kirk by one one-hundredth of a second to make the cut for the 2008 US Olympic team.
It was redemption for Jendrick who, four years earlier, missed making the Athens team by .11 seconds in that event, placing third, and preventing her from defending her 2000 Olympic gold medal. At the 2004 US Olympic Trials, she also competed in the 200m breast stroke final but she knew she was a long shot to qualify because she rarely trained for that distance.
"When I stood on those blocks before that final," she recalled "I thought, ‘this is the last race of my career." She placed sixth - also not good enough for Athens.
So she returned home to Washington and poured her energy into planning her wedding to Nathan Jendrick, her high school boyfriend who was averse to water after nearly drowning as a child, and whom she taught to swim when he was 17.
But every wedding anniversary would remind Quann that she didn't make the Olympic team; the couple had chosen December 18 for their ceremony so it wouldn't interfere with her training for Athens.
While in wedding mode, Megan didn't touch a swimsuit for six months.
She also began the formal process of retiring. It required filling out paperwork for the US Anti-Doping Agency, so it would know when to stop drug testing her. Since she was only 20 years old in 2004, she listed her status as "semi-retired" - just in case - but that meant she still had to be available for USADA's out-of-competition testing.
Many times, she'd have to turn her car around and head home for a test. Sometimes, officials would show up at 4am to collect a sample from the "semi-retired" athlete.
"And they don't just knock-knock on the door," Nathan said, "It's bang-bang."
During the flurry of wedding preparation, lingering disappointment, and the hassle of random drug testing, Megan and Nathan received a surprise invitation to fly to the Athens Olympics as a guest of Sports Illustrated because she had appeared on the magazine's cover in 2000.
The couple arrived in Athens on the final night of swimming competition. They were offered pool-side tickets, so Megan was able to witness Australia break the United States' world record in the women's 4x100m medley relay. Megan had helped set the old world record, so to see the mark shattered, she said, "lit a fire. I was ready to do damage."
Nathan felt the fire, too. "I thought to myself, she's going to come back," he said.
After they returned to Washington, Megan began working with the local aquatics club, teaching kids age 5-9 to race and, because she had so much extra energy, accomplished a whirlwind of do-it-yourself projects at home: building a fence and a desk, and painting the inside and outside of the house.
"She almost needed swimming to calm down," Nathan said.
"He kept trying to get me to work out," she said.
Finally, Jendrick grew eager to race. "But I wasn't sure about the whole training thing. I didn't want to make such a big commitment without knowing if I could follow through with it."
She spoke to Sean Hutchison, the head coach of the King Aquatic Club in Washington and said, "I don't know if I can commit." He said, "If you can give me six months, let's see what happens."
So on January 6, 2005, one day after returning from her Hawaiian honeymoon, Jendrick hit the pool for a 3 ½ hour workout and never looked back.
"Sean's philosophy is perfect for Megan," Nathan Jendrick said.
Huchison's swimmers train once a day, seven days a week - unlike most clubs which have two-a-day practices and Sundays off.
Jendrick's first competition was the 2005 World Championship Trials in Indianapolis, held in the same pool where Jendrick made her first Olympic team. She missed the qualifying cut for Worlds by one place in the 100m breast stroke and was sent to the World University Games instead where she won three gold medals. At the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships, she took second-place in the 100m breaststroke, and began training seriously for the 200m breast stroke - which she had never done - and saw rapid improvement.
At the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, Australia, she took a silver medal in the 200m breast stroke. "That was a big surprise," she said. "I dropped 2.2 seconds, just because I'd been focusing on it."
Since the 2007 Worlds, Jendrick has been mainly training for the 200m breast stroke, which is why making the Olympic team in the 100m event on Tuesday night was doubly surprising.
"I haven't slept much in two days," she said in an interview outside the Quest Center in Omaha on Wednesday morning.
Her husband, Nathan, was still glowing, too. The night of the final, Jendrick, a journalist who covers swimming for radio and the web, was sitting in the media seats. When his wife's time was posted, he shot out of his seat and jumped five feet in the air, as if he'd made the Olympic team himself. As he waited for her in the "mixed zone," he thought about the goggle strap, and how they'd just been discussing how critical hundredths of a second could be.
A day later, sitting outside the Quest Center for an interview, a steady stream of fans approached to congratulate Jendrick. One of them, triple gold-medalist Rowdy Gaines, dropped his backpack, gave her a bear hug, and said, "I'm so proud of you!" Another said, "Oh, you're the husband and wife that won last night."
Today, Jendrick will compete in the 200m breast stroke prelims and semifinals. The finals will be held Friday.
After Beijing, the couple figures to make headlines again. Nathan has just finished writing his third sports book - a tell-all autobiography with Victor Conte, the president of Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), the company that developed the banned steroid THG and triggered the ongoing steroid scandal that implicated several gold-medalists, particularly in track and field.
Nathan Jendrick knows that his journalistic connection to Conte can be an unhealthy association for any athlete, so he deliberately kept his wife away from Conte during the process.
The book, "BALCO: The Straight Dope on Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, and What We Can Do to Save Sports,"is scheduled to be released in September.
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.