LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Logic would suggest that 34-year-old swimmer Jeff Rouse, who competed in his first world championship back in 1991, has seen it all in this sport. But even Rouse was stunned by what he witnessed Friday at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials.
After America's deepest field in history contested the 100-meter backstroke, five of the eight men reaching the end under 55 seconds, the physically spent swimmers began to gravitate toward the pool's middle lanes. They nearly resembled National Football League players clustering at mid-field for a coin toss.
"All eight guys went to the middle lanes, which I don't think I've seen," said Rouse, a 1992 and 1996 Olympic gold medalist whose comeback bid from a six-year retirement ended when he was the sixth guy among the eight to hit the wall. "I think everyone knew it was going to be a tight race. Everybody knew it could've been anybody's race."
It belonged this time to 2000 Olympians and rivals Aaron Peirsol (53.64 seconds) and Lenny Krayzelburg (54.06), whose 1-2 finish sends them back to the Games. Four years ago, in Sydney, Krayzelburg won gold, Peirsol silver.
In America's exacting, punishing Olympic swimming trials, competitors bask in the glory of survival, not the win. The celebrations are always tempered a bit by knowing how those who do not survive are feeling. When hundredths of seconds separate the acclaimed, those who will move on to the next act in Athens, from the politely applauded, those who are left to ponder what went wrong and why, the environment is more humbling than inflating.
The madness in the water passes so quickly, but swimmers sometimes know how it's playing out before the scoreboard confirms the news.
"It was so close, by one tenth -- it was close," said Megan Quann, 20, four years ago the Olympic champion in the 100 breaststroke but, on Friday, a non-qualifier in the same event when she finished third.
Just ahead of her was Stanford's Tara Kirk, 21, scrambling to stay with two-time Olympian Amanda Beard, who eventually touched first to seal her third career Olympic berth.
"I could see [Beard's] leg next to me, and I said, 'Oh, I've gotta go,'" said Kirk, sensing the drama of the final 50 meters.
Beard felt it, too, saying later, "I could see Tara, so I reached my little fingers out there."
No race had more fingers extending out of sheer desperation than the men's 100 backstroke, featuring three generations of American swimming talent in Rouse, Krayzelburg and Peirsol. Krayzelburg, the Ukraine-born immigrant, clearly was not ready to fade away as an answer to a trivia question: Who was the 2000 Olympic champion who later underwent shoulder surgery three times and didn't make the team in 2004?
Once you've basked in the glory of survival, surrender does not come easy. Krayzelburg, 28, was nearly fed up with being off his peak and unsure about his shoulders' recovery a year ago. He changed coaches. He stayed the course.
"I still love doing this," Krayzelburg said after his gutsy move from middle of the pack to breathing down Peirsol's neck. "If you have an opportunity to do what you love doing, you should stick with it as long as you can."
His new coach, Dave Salo of Nova Aquatics here in southern California, also Peirsol's coach, was on both sides of the emotional pendulum Friday. In the men's 100 back, he was 1-2. In the women's 100 breaststroke, his swimmers Staciana Stitts and Jessica Hardy were fourth and fifth, their hopes dashed.
"This was the fastest women's 100 breast field in history," he said. "All you do is close your eyes and hope you see a one or two next to their names."
If a swimmer at this stage of the game dares think about trying not to lose, the consequences can be immediate.
"You have to go mindless when you get up and race in this part of the competition," Salo said.
The mind shuts down but not the emotions.
Chad Carvin, an Olympian in 2000, was seventh in the men's 200 freestyle, saying later the outcome "breaks my heart." Rouse, his comeback story over, talked about the deep nostalgia after coming "as close as I could get."
"It was tough to leave in 1996, and it will be sad to leave now," he said.
Peirsol, 20, the reigning 100- and 200-backstroke world champion, sounded like a man who was undecided if he was elated or just awestruck by what he had endured.
"We respect each other so much," he said of the 100-backstroke field. "This is a very, very tense meet. It's being first or second that counts. Second's the same as first. It means you can carry on, finish your summer at the Olympics."
With no threat of hearing an argument from any fellow competitor, he added: "The Olympics shouldn't be this hard to make."