"Ready For Rio" is a five-part feature series celebrating Team USA's top athletes and storylines in commemoration of the two-year countdown to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. The third part in the series covers the fourth-place finishers, those who finished just off the podium in 2012 and are out for redemption in 2016.
When Taylor Phinney was a kid, he learned what Olympic medals meant. His parents each had one — Davis Phinney won a bronze in cycling’s team time trial and Connie Carpenter-Phinney took the gold medal in the women’s road race, both at the 1984 Olympic Games.
A smart kid, Phinney also considered what it might be like to compete in an Olympic Games and not win a medal, especially if it were a close race.
“I actually remember being a kid and watching the Olympics and thinking about the people who got fourth and how heartbreaking that must be for them, never thinking that would be something that would happen to me,” he said by phone recently from his home in Boulder, Colorado.
Not only did it happen to Phinney at the London 2012 Olympic Games. It happened twice. He finished fourth in the men’s road race and then fourth in the individual time trial (his dad’s event, the team time trial, is no longer on the Olympic program).
In the 2012 Olympic men’s road race, Phinney was in a chase group 8 seconds behind eventual gold medalist Alexander Vinokourov from Kazakhstan and silver medalist Rigoberto Uran of Colombia. As the chase group approached the finish line on The Mall in front of Buckingham Palace, Phinney knew the entire group would be competing for the final Olympic medal on offer.
Sprinting on Alex Kristoff’s wheel, Phinney was giving it all he had but was losing ground on the Norwegian sprinter.
“I had that split second where I was like, ‘Oh no, I’m going to get fourth in the Olympics,’” he remembered thinking.
Phinney banged his fist on his handlebars in frustration after crossing the line behind Kristoff.
When he cooled off, Phinney realized that fourth place is still “a great accomplishment,” especially for a 22-year-old racing against older guys. Kristoff was 25 at the time, Vinokourov 38.
Four days later, pedaling against the clock in the individual time trial, Phinney placed fourth again. But he was not as heartbroken as he was after the road race. He finished 50.2 seconds off the podium, so “didn’t really have it dangling out in front of me like in the road race,” he said.
Sarah Groff knows what Phinney feels like. In the women’s 2012 Olympic triathlon, she crossed the finish line 10 seconds behind the three women with whom she had run the final lap of the race.
It was a dramatic and frustrating end to a gutsy race for Groff, who had been dropped from the same group of runners during the previous lap. She doggedly caught back up with one 2.5 kilometers lap to go.
Coming into the finish, Groff could not respond when the three other women started to sprint.
“I looked, I looked, and it wasn’t there,” Groff said after the race.
Then this thought crossed her mind: “Oh my, I just lost a medal.”
Nicola Spirig of Switzerland took gold and Sweden’s Lisa Norden silver in a photo finish; Erin Densham of Australia rounded out the podium with the bronze medal. Groff went home empty-handed.
“Only three people get a medal,” she said at the time. “I’m going to have to wait another four years.”
While many athletes struggle with motivation after the emotional and physical build-up to the Olympic Games, those who finished tantalizingly close to the podium often replay “what-if” scenarios in their heads. Groff knew that she had put it all out there in London. But the race and Olympic experience flattened her, and she struggled in the final World Triathlon Series races of the 2012 season, finishing seventh in one and ninth in the final.
“I don’t think I’m going to forget it ever,” Groff said recently. “I would say it took me until the summer of 2013 to really regain momentum.”
Groff finally made the podium in London — in a WTS race in May 2014 — and despite a minor foot injury in June, is having a good build toward Rio.
Phinney was also having a good build toward Rio and was slated to debut in his first Tour de France this July. Then a serious crash at the USA Cycling Pro Championships in late May derailed his plans. Now he is at home rehabbing a compound fracture to his left tibia and a knee injury.
He happily reported that he is a month ahead of schedule and can now ride his bike outside — “so that is quite lovely,” he said.
If all goes well, he would like to race in the 2015 Tour de France, which begins with a time trial and a chance for the winner to wear the coveted race-leader’s yellow jersey.
Although the Tour de France is considered cycling’s grandest race, and wearing the Tour’s yellow jersey would be a “huge redemption prize” for his struggles this year, Phinney still yearns for an Olympic medal. When he was younger, the first thing that he would tell people was that his dad was an Olympic bronze medalist and his mom a gold medalist, not that his dad won a couple stages of the Tour de France and that his mom was a two-time world cycling champion.
“It doesn’t matter what sport it is,” he said. “There’s so much power attached to those words, to be an Olympic medalist.”
“To be able to represent the USA and go out and potentially win an Olympic medal has always been something that has really driven me,” he added. “The biggest goal in my career is to get at least one medal. A gold medal would be lovely.”
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Besides Phinney and Groff, 35 other members of Team USA finished just off the podium at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Some have moved on to the next phase of life, including swimmer Kathleen Hersey, who created USA Swimming’s famous “Call Me Maybe” video before the London Games. Hersey finished fourth in the women’s 200-meter butterfly. And Weston “Seth” Kelsey, fourth in fencing’s individual epee, was USA Fencing’s director of sports performance until this spring, when he resigned to pursue real estate development, as well as work with the U.S. Air Force Reserves, where he’s a captain.
A couple other fourth-place finishers decided to try their medal chances in a winter sport. Lolo Jones and Tianna Bartoletta (nee Madison) tried out for bobsled in the fall of 2012. Over two seasons, Jones earned four medals on the FIBT World Cup tour, a gold in the team event at the 2013 FIBT World Championships, and made the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team competing in Sochi, where she 11th pushing Jazmine Fenlator’s bobsled.
Bartoletta, 28, earned a bronze medal in the Lake Placid World Cup bobsled race in November 2012. But she only competed in bobsled for one season.
“She decided to commit full-time to track and field, but her success in that season certainly helped us attract other elite athletes like her,” said U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation spokeswoman Amanda Bird.
One of those other elite athletes included 2012 Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter Lauryn Williams, who pushed Elana Meyers’ bobsled to a silver medal in Sochi.
Back on track, Bartoletta recently won the women’s 100-meter title at the 2014 U.S. championships. She has also been competing in the long jump and 200-meter this season. She finished second in long jump at the U.S. championships and has won two IAAF Diamond League meets in the discipline.
Although still without Olympic medals after three trips to the Olympic Games (two summer, one winter), Jones has made the podium in hurdles several times this season. The 32-year-old hurdler finished third at the U.S. championships in June and has finished third twice and second once in Diamond League meets. Jones is currently ranked third in the world, tied with U.S. teammate and 2013 world champion Brianna Rollins (and behind U.S. teammates Queen Harrison and Dawn Harper-Nelson).
Modern pentathlete Margaux Isaksen, 22, also has yet to earn an Olympic medal after falling just short in London. She is ranked eighth in the world this year, and after winning last year’s world cup in Rio, she will no doubt be a medal contender at the 2016 Olympic Games.
Mariel Zagunis already knows what it feels like to earn an Olympic medal. She has three — two golds in individual saber from the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games, and a bronze from team saber in 2008. So finishing fourth at the 2012 Olympic Games was a completely foreign experience for the fencer.
“For me, when I expect to win everything, it’s a disappointing result, especially since I won the previous two Olympics,” she said. “Fourth is still a good results, but it’s all relative.
She then added, “but that’s in the past and Rio’s in the future. That’s the thing that I’m focused on for the next two years.”
Zagunis failed to medal again at the 2013 World Championships but still had a good result (eighth). Now 29, Zagunis was back on the podium this year, capturing the silver medal at the 2014 FIE Senior World Championships in July.
“This season in particular has been really up and down, the most up and down season I’ve ever had, so to come away from world championships with a silver, I was actually really happy with that and pleased with the way I fenced all day,” she said.
Also at 2014 worlds, Zagunis anchored the U.S. women’s saber team to the gold medal — the third in the team’s history and its first since 2005. Zagunis also finished the season as the No. 2-ranked women’s saber fencer in the world.
Olympic qualification begins in April 2015, and Zagunis is already gearing up: “I’m not wasting any time getting myself prepared to the best of my ability so I can show up in Rio and win that third individual gold that slipped through my fingers last time but also to win that team gold that we know we can win, especially after our result a couple weeks ago [at worlds].”
Archer Khatuna Lorig, 40, also knows what it feels like to collect Olympic hardware, then fall short. When competing for the Unified Team of the Soviet Union in 1992, she won a bronze medal. Then competing for the U.S. at the 2008 Beijing Games, she earned a silver. The five-time Olympian came home empty-handed in 1996, 2000, and she finished just off the podium in 2012.
“Khatuna is definitely shooting for a spot on the Rio team and has been very motivated by her close-but-not-quite-there finish in London,” said USA Archery spokeswoman Teresa Johnson.
Since the 2012 Games, Lorig has finished second in the mixed team competition with Brady Ellison at the 2013 World Archery Championships last September. Most recently, she won the mixed team competition at the Pan American Olympic Festival in Mexico City in July.
Boston marathon winner Meb Keflezighi is another Olympian who knows what it’s like to stand on the podium, then fall just short. The marathoner earned a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Games, then fell short in London, finishing fourth. This past April, he took an emotional win on the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Now 39, Keflezighi recently told the Boston Herald that he plans to race in the New York Marathon in November, then defend his Boston Marathon title in April 2015. Then he is “hoping to make his fourth Olympic Team in 2016,” reported his brother and agent Merhawi Keflezighi.
Although Missy Franklin, Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps each won multiple Olympic medals in London, each also tasted the bitterness of finishing fourth in the pool. Lochte and Franklin both took fourth in the 200-meter freestyle — Franklin by only one hundredth of a second — and Phelps was off the podium in fourth in the 400 individual medley, a grueling event that he swore to never swim again after he won a gold medal in it in 2008.
Since London, Lochte finished fourth again in the 200 free at the 2013 FINA World Championships, and at the 2014 Phillips 66 National Championships in Irvine, California, last week, he withdrew from the 200 free final to focus on the 200 backstroke, where he finished third.
But Franklin has had some redemption in the women’s 200 freestyle. She won the event at 2013 worlds — one of six gold medals that she earned last July.
Last week at nationals, the women’s 200 free was one of the most anticipated events — with American record holder Allison Schmitt, freestyle wunderkind Katie Ledecky and Franklin entered in the race. In the final, Ledecky beat Franklin by 1.24 seconds for the national title. Schmitt did not qualify for the A final.
Although Ledecky won by a body-length, she still called the 200 free a “tough race.”
In his recent comeback, Phelps has not specified any goals — although it’s probably safe to say that he won’t be swimming the loathed 400 IM in any upcoming meets. He did not enter the 400 IM at nationals last week, and the meet was a qualifier for Pan Pacs and 2015 worlds.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.