As Ashley Twichell extended her arms and fluttered her feet, she knew she was in danger. Again.
The 30-year-old American was approaching the midway point of the final lap in the 10-kilometer open-water swim at the July world championships in Gwangju, South Korea, when she stole a glance and counted the bodies in front of her. Thirteen, she thought. Thirteen swimmers between her and the finish line, and only the top 10 would earn a spot at the Tokyo Olympics. The rest would be denied.
Three times before, in 2008, 2012 and 2016, Twichell had tried to earn a spot at the Olympics. Three times before, she had failed. When she dove into the water nearly two hours earlier, she did so knowing this could be her final chance.
Twichell had about 800 meters and nine minutes to move up at least four places. She accelerated.
"I kept reminding myself of all the work I put into reaching the Olympics, why I kept pursuing this goal and that I had a strong finish in me," said Twichell, who has won five world championship medals and nine national titles.
She picked off one swimmer. Then another. A cheering section that included her husband, parents and two coaches grew louder. Twichell passed another.
Xin Xin of China crossed the finish line first. Then American Haley Anderson. Then a large pack that included Twichell surged to the end.
"I was 99 percent sure I had made it but held back any celebrating until seeing official standings," Twichell said. "I turned to Haley and was like, 'I was in the top 10, right?'"
Twichell finished in 1 hour, 54 minutes and 50.5 seconds, good for sixth place. She and Anderson, who will be a three-time Olympian, became the first Americans in any sport to qualify for the 2020 Olympics.
"I felt a mix of relief and joy after spending so many years chasing this dream," Twichell said. "Throughout that time, I was encouraged by getting faster in open-water and pool and never lost my desire for the sport no matter how many struggles there were."
Twichell immediately began looking for those in attendance who had kept her motivated. There was her former coach Bill Rose, who brought out Twichell's open-water talent. He was joined by her current coach, John Payne. Her parents, Terry and Deirdre Twichell, made the trip, along with her husband, Derek Wall, the CEO of Triangle Aquatic Center in Cary, North Carolina, where Twichell trains.
"Just being able to hug and thank in person many of the people who helped keep me going was incredible," she said.
Unless someone older makes the Olympic team for the first time at next June's indoor trials in Omaha, Nebraska, Twichell will be Team USA's oldest rookie Olympic swimmer since 1908. She will be 31 when the Games begin, tying her with Jenny Thompson as the second-oldest U.S. female Olympic swimmers ever behind Dara Torres, who last qualified at age 41 in 2008.
"When Ashley is healthy, she is fast and we've been able to get her to the starting lines of major meets injury-free and well-trained in recent years," Payne said. "It was an amazing moment to see Ashley, an outstanding person and athlete in every sense, finally make an Olympic team."
It's been a long journey, and Twichell may not be done.
The youngest of four siblings growing up in Fayetteville, New York, Twichell started swimming at age 3. The family made the pool at a local country club its second home during summers. By age 7, Twichell was swimming competitively. After playing soccer, basketball and lacrosse, she made swimming her sole sport at age 13. She developed a love for open water through ocean swims with her dad during family vacations to Florida.
At Fayetteville-Manlius High School, Twichell became a high school All-American in the 200 and 500 freestyles and secured a scholarship to Duke. In Durham, she discovered a knack for longer distances and was an All-ACC performer and All-American in the 1,650 freestyle.
As a 19-year-old, Twichell tried to qualify for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but she didn't advance from her 400 freestyle heat at the U.S. trials. "At the time, I was happy with just qualifying," she said. "The 2008 trials provided some good, big-meet exposure."
Two years later, Twichell tested herself in open-water competition for the first time at the 2010 U.S. championships. It could hardly have gone worse -- she finished next to last in the 10K, struggling in the 60-degree water off Long Beach, California.
"The 5K was next, and some people said I should skip it," she said. "But I knew I probably would not try open-water racing again if I did."
Twichell made the right decision. She finished the 5K in eighth place, which led to an invitation to a national open-water camp in Mission Viejo, California, in the spring of 2011. There, she met Rose and Payne, who were part of the camp's coaching staff. Twichell was surprised by the grueling training regimen, which included 60 miles a week in open water. Even more surprising were her results at the national championships, which took place at the conclusion of camp. She won the first of three national 5K titles and was third in the 10K after finishing so far back in the pack 12 months prior. Twichell then helped Team USA to the 5K mixed-team relay gold at the world championships and took bronze in the 5K (neither 5K distance is part of the Olympic program).
Twichell joined Rose's Mission Viejo Nadadores team and continued to thrive over the next two years, winning the first of four national 10K open water titles in 2012. She also learned the art of frugality, living with a host family before sharing an apartment with two-time Olympian and Nadadores teammate Chloe Sutton. Twichell worked part-time and got financial help from her parents before receiving a training stipend from the United States Olympic Committee and being signed by swimming clothing- and gear-maker TYR.
Her second attempt to earn a spot in the Olympics came at a 10K qualifying event in Portugal in 2012. Twichell, who was the reigning national champion, finished fourth, seven seconds behind Anderson, who went on to win a silver medal at the London Games. In the pool at the 2012 Olympic trials, Twichell's best finish was 10th place in the 800 freestyle.
"Not making it in 2012 was probably my lowest point," Twichell said. "I kept asking why I didn't quite have it those days. If somebody had told me then not to worry because I would be an Olympian in 2020, it would have been hard to wrap my head around."
She tried again to qualify in 2016 for the Rio Olympics. She struck out again. This time, Twichell didn't even make it out of the open-water nationals, where she finished third and failed to advance to the world championships. In the pool, her best finish was fifth in the 800 freestyle. The top two advanced to the Games.
"At the end of each year, I have decided I was just not ready to step away and wanted to keep pushing," she said. "I've gained so much through swimming ... like my husband, great friendships and competing around the world."
The results remained promising, too. In 2017, Twichell won the world championship in the 5K open-water. In 2018, she won the national championship in the 1,500 freestyle in the pool, one year after it was announced the event would debut at the Tokyo Olympics.
"Finally, they added my best pool distance," Twichell said. "Learning that has also given me a lot of motivation to continue."
Twichell began training in earnest for her final Olympic bid last winter at Triangle Aquatic Center. She peaked at 70 kilometers (43.4 miles) per week, in addition to dryland workouts.
In May, she won the open-water 5K at the national championships in Miami and took second in the 10K, which earned her a trip to worlds, where her sixth-place finish clinched a spot at the Olympics.
In June, Twichell took part in a Team USA training camp at the 6,000-foot elevation of Colorado Springs.
"I finished that camp feeling completely healthy and confident in my uninterrupted training," she said. "Plus, I had learned and grown so much as the result of falling short in the past. I know my competition well and there was no doubt I could hang with those women."
Showing remarkable range at the world championships, Twichell helped Team USA take bronze in the 5K mixed open-water relay and was seventh in the 5K open-water swim. In the pool, Twichell finished fourth in the 1,500 freestyle in a personal-best 15 minutes, 54.19 seconds, making her the fourth-fastest American ever behind Katie Ledecky (15:20.48), Kate Ziegler (15:42.54) and Janet Evans (15:52.10). Ledecky, who holds the world record, withdrew from the 1,500 finals at worlds with an illness.
At the U.S. championships, Twichell took third in the 800-meter freestyle. Still battling illness, Ledecky, who owns the world record, did not race.
Twichell was the only woman to finish in the top six in an open-water and pool event at the world championships and the only one to place in the top three in both disciplines at the national championships.
"That was Ashley's first time racing both open-water and in the pool at the same world championships, but we both knew she was strong enough to handle it," Payne said. "She proved that."
The women's 1,500 freestyle offers Twichell's best chance to compete in the pool in Tokyo. She won the national title at the U.S. championships in the event in 2018. Only Ledecky has a faster personal best among those likely to be in the U.S. Olympic trials field. Twichell also has met trials qualifying standards in the 400 and 800 freestyles.
After missing out on three Olympics, could Twichell land a spot in both the open-water and pool competitions in Tokyo?
"We're certainly going for it at the trials in at least the 800 and 1,500 because Ashley has a strong chance in both," Payne said. "A lot can happen in the 10K, but Ashley is an Olympic podium contender for sure. She is too strong and knows the race too well not to be."