LONDON -- Alex Meyer's journey to the starting dock of the Olympic 10-kilometer open water swim has been equal parts mystical and practical. He trained with his usual fearsome work ethic, and he also kept drawing from a ground spring of emotion that began the day almost two years ago when his friend and teammate, Fran Crippen, lost his life doing what they both loved.
Meyer wanted to win a medal to redeem his own effort and for many reasons: for his family, for his country, for the college teammates who flew over and massed on the south bank of the Serpentine. He wanted to win for his earthy, loyal coach, Tim Murphy, who has been watching over him from pool decks and beaches and kayaks since Meyer arrived at Harvard as a skinny, quirky miler. And Meyer wanted to swim well for the Crippens, who have become a second family since Fran's drowning death in a race in the United Arab Emirates in October 2010.
It's a lot to take on, competitively and personally. Yet Meyer, 24, a native of upstate New York, has betrayed no undue pressures in the past few months and rehabbed a broken collarbone suffered in a fluke bike accident with aplomb. Who's to say that he would have been on the Olympic team at all without such powerful motivation? Elite athletes have different powers of visualization from the rest of us, and Meyer has been sustained by the image of bringing Crippen with him to London in tangible and intangible ways.
A six-mile open water race takes roughly two hours, but its dynamics can change in a minute or two, and that is what happened to Meyer, one of a strong field of 25 men in the second-ever Olympic 10K. For the first few laps, he stayed near the front of the pack and out of trouble like a cyclist fearing bad bike handlers in the rear of the peloton. On the fourth of six trips around the rectangular course, he got "pummeled,'' as he put it, in the jostling pack of swimmers trying to hydrate at the floating feeding station, and lost about 10 seconds.
The men at the front, including eventual winner Ous Mellouli, from Tunisia via USC, pushed the pace and that was that.
"I don't think I ever really recovered,'' Meyer said. "Probably could have done a better job of keeping my head up going into that one, not running into people and getting to my feet quicker.
"I was battling some pretty negative thoughts in the last lap, trying to keep those subdued. But I just didn't have it at the end.''
Meyer finished 10th, less than a minute behind Mellouli -- a double Olympic medalist in the 1,500-meter pool event who is the first man to cross over and finish in the top three in open water. Mellouli, who competed for USC and continues to train at the Trojan Swim Club there, was the second swimmer from that school to medal here, as Haley Anderson took silver in the women's race Thursday, beaming from the podium against the backdrop of the beautiful, green, natural amphitheater of Hyde Park.
"I think [Meyer] did a really good job in the beginning,'' said Murphy, the Harvard head coach who was appointed as U.S. open water coach for this Olympics. "Then it got real crowded, and he got banged around. Every little bit takes some of the starch out of you. That pack he was in, they were all over each other.
"He did his best. It was just a tough race. He's been fourth and 10th [in the 10K] at worlds and Olympics, so it's not like he's not in that class. The race has to develop a little differently for him to be there at the end.''
Meyer said his thoughts gravitated to Crippen during the race, but he is a private person who was not about to share too much of his inner dialogue.
He was most animated in talking about the safety reforms that he and other top swimmers say are necessary to ensure that tragedy doesn't strike again. Meyer said he hopes FINA, the sport's international governing body, converts what is currently a recommendation for a maximum water temperature into an official rule, and also pays more heed to water quality standards in races at the top level.
Meyer said he lacked "magic" in the final stages of the race, but he may be doing himself a disservice. There was nothing magic about what he's accomplished over the past two seasons, only extraordinary discipline, dedication and composure.
He made a point to speak to Crippen's parents, Pat and Pete, at their home in suburban Philadelphia the night before the race. Some tears were shed.
"They just said good luck; be safe,'' he said.
That, as Meyer knows only too well, is the most important result of all.