Fourth in an occasional series
Next month, as Michael Phelps swims for sports immortality at the Athens Olympics, his friend Kevin Clements will likely be in a rented van out on the interstate, hauling his belongings from Maryland back to college in Alabama.
Clements might pick up a news flash on the radio as he drives, and as Phelps goes for up to eight gold medals 4,000 miles away. And he might feel a pang that he, too, could have been in Athens, instead of heading back to Auburn University.
Michael Phelps, left, hangs out with friend and training partner Kevin Clements, who was not among the 21 selected for the U.S. Swimming Team.
(Jonathan Newton - The Post)
With better luck, Clements, 24, one of Phelps's two main training partners at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club for the past year, might well have made the U.S. team. Talented, determined and confident, he had been planning for Athens for months.
But during eight sun-drenched days, before family and fans at the U.S. trials in Long Beach, Calif., earlier this month, neither he nor James Barone, Phelps's other chief training buddy, were among the 21 men who made the team.
Instead, they joined the 600 swimmers from around the country, athletes from places including Waukesha, Wis., and Metuchen, N.J., and Spokane, Wash., whose Olympic dreams faded with the sunsets in the outdoor pool by the sea.
It was particularly hard for Clements, who had a legitimate chance at making the team, and Barone, who was a long shot, because both had trained side by side with Phelps: Clements for more than a year; Barone, 24, who is known as "Jamie," for more than three years.
All three were close friends. And while their prospects were different, all had put their lives on hold to reach for their dream. All labored through the same training regimen. And all sought the same destination: Athens.
Clements, a native of Rowland Heights, Calif., lived with Phelps, 19, and his mother, Debbie, outside Baltimore for most of last summer. Barone, of Stamford, Conn., used to ferry Phelps around town before Phelps had his driver's license. Clements and Barone later shared an apartment in Baltimore.
But while Phelps and other victorious swimmers held news conferences in Long Beach, Clements, Barone and many others shared anguish, tears and embarrassment away from the bleachers where few fans could see.
Defeat in swimming is especially individual, and much more commonplace than victory.
Clements was mortified at his poor performance, a fifth-place finish in the 200-meter individual medley final. "I didn't even want to get out of the pool," he said last week. "It's a huge disappointment. I can't even express how much a disappointment it is."
Barone, who nearly quit swimming in February and then took yoga classes to try to improve, believed he had an outside chance to make the team.
But he failed to make the trials final in either the 100 or 200 breaststroke. "It was pretty awful," he said from Connecticut.