After he’d won gold in the 400-metre IM the other day, American swimmer Chase Kalisz came out to his presser. As only a winner can, he began holding court.
Someone asked him about Rio. Despite being the favourite, he’d won silver there. What was that like?
“I was devastated,” Kalisz said. “Brutal.”
He may not have noticed that one of his teammates, Emma Weyant, had just taken her seat alongside him on the dais.
Weyant was also a favourite. She’d also just won silver.
As Kalisz expanded on the catastrophe of being second best, Weyant made a point of staring straight ahead blankly at nothing in particular.
On Tuesday, Kylie Masse won her own silver. In doing so, she set an Olympic record. The time she put up – 57.72 – would easily have won her the race in every previous Olympics.
But on the day, Australia’s Kaylee McKeown was faster. By a quarter of a second.
After swimming, Masse is most renowned in the Canadian program for her poise. Though she is not the face of swimming in our country – that’s Penny Oleksiak – Masse is the spokesperson.
All those nice things they say about a job applicant – thoughtful, considerate, articulate – Masse is them.
She was considered a lock for a medal going into Tuesday’s race, as were McKeown and American Regan Smith. The trio has been trading the world record among themselves for a couple of years. All that had to be decided is who would place where on the podium.
Smith finished in third place. She was freed to be devastated. She entered the mixed zone like she was race walking. When the Americans on hand realized she wasn’t going to stop and called out to her, Smith yelled back, “I gotta cool down.”
Whether she meant that literally, figuratively or both, it was hard to say. McKeown came through like a rock star, full of grace and good cheer. The Australians treat swimmers the way we treat hockey players. While her countrymen fawned, McKeown was suitably abashed.
That left Masse.
She hadn’t looked disappointed on the podium. Even behind a mask, you could tell she was smiling. She waved emphatically to what passed for a crowd.
She came in carrying the bouquet they’d given her on the podium – usually a sign of happiness. Her hand kept drifting down to the medal, fingering it nervously.
“I upgraded from 2016,” she said, starting off. She’d won bronze in Rio.
It sounded like a line she might have practised beforehand if it turned out like this.
When someone put the question to her beautifully – “mourning gold” while “celebrating silver” – Masse seemed less ready for that one.
“I think it would be ...” – she stopped for a long beat, dipped her head and had a real think about what would come next – “... it would have been incredible to have gotten gold and I would have absolutely loved that. I’m still really happy with a silver.”
You can take the years and teach someone to swim, but you cannot prepare them for this. It’s an unfair ask, but it’s still revealing.
Masse was trying to square that circle – pride in accomplishment jumbled up a dream that had just died – so she kept talking.
“After a crazy year, I don’t think you can ...” – again she stopped – “... be too hard on yourself.”
This was elliptical way of stating the obvious discrepancy between her last year and a bit, and McKeown’s. The pandemic torpedoed Olympic training in Canada. In order to get some useful reps in, Masse had to tie a tether to a fence in her parents’ backyard, then attached to herself, then swim in place.
In Australia, McKeown continued training as usual.
“I don’t want to think about that too much,” Masse said. She did what everyone does in this situation – she refused to use it as an excuse. But she also went where no one ever does after the old “this is not an excuse” excuse, saying the interruption to her routine may actually have helped her.
“I have to be happy with that. I am happy with that,” Masse said. She said it like it reads – as a mantra.
This is the cruelty of the Olympics. Everyone here is a remarkable human specimen. Everyone has worked hard and sacrificed. Everyone’s living some version of the dream.
But only a very few get to take it to the place every kid in sport starts out at – winning gold.
That may be easiest on the people who arrived with no expectations. They really are freed to take it all in and enjoy every moment and not take anything for granted. Their Olympic tour package comes with an unchangeable itinerary.
Then there are the ones who come out of nowhere to snag a place on the podium. That may be the sweetest spot of all. You thought this was all fun times, and then it turns out there’s a jackpot as well. It’s like winning the bingo, but with your body.
Then there are the Masses, McKeowns and Smiths – the people who have to win.
Anyone else in Tuesday’s race would probably have cut off a finger for Smith’s bronze. But because of expectations, being the third best at anything in the world is a disappointment to her. She might use Kalisz’s terminology – brutal, devastating.
Some people handle that better than others and no one should be judged for how they do so. It’s a very-close-to-unique experience. There is no preparing for it.
But when they carry it off, they should be congratulated. Masse is one of them. She was doubly triumphant on Tuesday.
First, she pulled herself to the peak of the sporting mountain, and once there, she still managed to enjoy the view.
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