June Is the Month When Olympic Dreams Die

Before the Olympics even begin, there is always heartbreak. And June may be the hardest month of all.

Caitlin Clark, the ascendant star of women’s basketball, just found out that she won’t be going to Paris. So did Bill May, whose hopes of becoming the first man to compete at the Olympics in the sport of artistic swimming were dashed by the U.S. selection committee.

Over the next few weeks, hundreds more athletes — swimmers and sprinters, divers and tumblers, many of whom have spent years training with the singular goal of representing Team U.S.A. on the planet’s grandest sports stage — will see their dreams of competing at the Paris Olympics pulverized to a fine dust.

That’s because the U.S. trials in sports like swimming, gymnastics and track and field might just be the fiercest crucibles of all, with a ruthless requirement for Olympic berths: Perform well, or you’re staying home.

At the U.S. track and field trials, which are a 10-day smorgasbord of joy and sorrow that starts on Friday in Eugene, Ore., the top three finishers in each event will qualify for Paris — provided those athletes have met the Olympic standard. So, even for someone like Elle St. Pierre, who has the fastest times in the country this year in the women’s 1,500 and 5,000 meters, there are no excuses or do-overs. She knows she must be at her best.

In the 1,500 meters, some of St. Pierre’s toughest competition could come from two of her training partners: Emily Mackay, the bronze medalist in the event at the indoor world championships in March, and Heather MacLean, a former indoor national champion who represented the United States alongside St. Pierre at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

Mark Coogan, their coach with Team New Balance Boston, recalled a recent conversation with St. Pierre, the reigning indoor world champion in the 3,000 meters.

“I know everybody is in the same boat,” St. Pierre told him, “but it’s crazy how much you have to prove yourself in this sport to go to the Olympics as an American.”

Coogan gets it. In 1992, he was one of the country’s top runners in the steeplechase, a taxing event that combines 3,000 meters of running with water jumps and waist-high barriers. But just weeks before the U.S. trials for the Barcelona Games, he tweaked his hamstring. It wasn’t a serious injury.

“But I think it broke me mentally,” he said.

Coogan struggled at the trials and did not earn a spot at the Olympics.

The disappointment stuck with him for several years, he said. In fact, it was not until he made the U.S. Olympic team as a marathoner in 1996 that he felt a sense of relief.

“Like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders,” he said.

Isaiah Jewett, a men’s 800-meter runner who made the U.S. team for the Tokyo Games, is hoping to qualify again this month. “The level of stress you have to put your body, mind and soul through during the U.S. trials is one of a kind,” he said.

In some ways, the U.S. swimming trials, which started on Saturday in Indianapolis, are even more cutthroat: Only the top two finishers in each event are typically guaranteed spots on the Olympic team.

Alex Walsh, a silver medalist in the women’s 200-meter individual medley at the Tokyo Games, said that many prospective U.S. Olympians now included mental exercises and sessions with sports psychologists in their training to better prepare them for the pressure of the trials, which this year are being staged inside a football stadium.

There, Walsh said, “you can hear the crowd screaming. The bass is shaking the ready room underneath the stands. It’s supposed to get your adrenaline rushing for a reason. They want to see who can perform at the highest stakes; that way, the U.S. sends the best Olympic team possible. But if you save yourself until that moment to try and get ready mentally, you’re going to fail.”

And don’t forget about the U.S. gymnastics trials, a make-or-break event at the end of the month. On the women’s side, Simone Biles is expected to clinch the only automatic Olympic spot, which goes to the top scorer in the all-around after two days of competition. The United States has many elite gymnasts, but Biles, 27, is considered the best in the history of the sport.

Team officials will choose the four remaining spots, which are likely to go to the athletes who finish second through fifth in the all-around (though that’s not guaranteed). That uncertainty, and those high stakes, will put an extreme amount of stress on the gymnasts who have not yet peaked, including Sunisa Lee, the reigning Olympic champion in the all-around. While competing for Auburn University last year, Lee was diagnosed with two kidney diseases, but she is hoping to make her second consecutive Olympic team.

“Time is running really short for us right now,” Jess Graba, her coach, said recently in reference to her narrow window of time to prepare for the trials.

Lee still needs time to train, add some difficulty to her events and increase her stamina, Graba said. Lee returned to training full-time only in January.

“It’s crucial that things come together in these next several weeks,” Graba said. “That’s a lot of pressure, but I think Suni can do it.”

For some Olympic hopefuls, the dream is already over. May declined to comment after the U.S. artistic swimming team’s decision to leave him off its roster for Paris. But in an earlier interview, while he was still waiting to hear which eight of the 12 athletes on the team would be chosen to compete, he spoke about the stress of the process, especially because the team was so close-knit.

All 12 athletes had spent more than a year training together for eight hours a day, six days a week.

May also said that if he were left off the team, the decision would have repercussions beyond his own career.

“It would be a missed opportunity,” he said, adding: “To finally have the chance to introduce men into the Olympic Games, to know that the sport is inclusive but to not see that representation — it’s almost like a slap in the face.”

As for Clark, her reaction to the news that she would not be going to the Olympics with the U.S. women’s basketball team amounted to a shrug.

“Honestly, no disappointment,” she told reporters on Sunday. “It just gives me something to work for.”

Clark knew that her place on the team was a long shot. She has never played a game or participated in a training camp with the senior women’s team, which has won the past seven Olympic tournaments.

The U.S. selection committee was able to draw from a deep and talented pool of women’s basketball stars with professional and Olympic experience — and a familiarity with one another that, for the moment, does not leave room for newcomers. One American, Diana Taurasi, hopes to win her sixth gold medal in Paris. Breanna Stewart and Brittney Griner can each win her third.

It is, in Clark’s own words, “the most competitive team in the world,” and among the hardest to make.

“Hopefully, one day I can be there,” she said. “I think it’s just a little more motivation. You remember that.”

Juliet Macur, Andrew Das, Sarah Lyall, Talya Minsberg and Jenny Vrentas contributed reporting.

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