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.
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.
Now the trio is scattered.
Two days after the trials ended on July 14, Barone cleaned out the apartment he shared with Clements, two miles from the Baltimore pool where they spent much of the last year with Phelps.
Clements, who was home in California, already had placed his things in storage in Maryland, thinking he would get them after Athens.
Phelps was training with the Olympic team at Stanford University.
Barone's father, Jim, and sister, Victoria, arrived in Baltimore July 16 with the family's big conversion van for the trip back home. The van was duly loaded until it was crammed, and the apartment sat empty.
"It was a bit bizarre," Jamie Barone said, "when I closed the door and ended that chapter."
Preparing for the Moment
Clements and Barone were exhausted one Monday night in late February when they sat down to dinner at a Baltimore restaurant after a tiring day of practice.
They had just come back from a big meet in Orlando, where Clements had won his first national title, in the 400 individual medley.
Phelps had won five titles at the same meet, and had nearly broken the world record in the 200 backstroke.
But Barone's progress had stalled. At one point after the meet, he climbed out of the practice pool in tears and told the club coach, Bob Bowman, "I don't want to do this anymore."
But the coach dressed him down. This was preparing him for the rest of his life, Bowman said. He told Barone he ought to get back in the water. He did.
All three swimmers have similar builds. They are well more than 6 feet tall and weigh between 175 and 200 pounds. But their talents and ages vary.
Phelps, though he was then only 18, held three world records, numerous lucrative endorsement deals and was the talk of the swimming world.
Clements, who had been a champion swimmer at Auburn and had an endorsement deal with Speedo, had come to Baltimore the previous spring to train with Phelps and Bowman.
Barone, who graduated from Baltimore's Loyola College in 2002 and had once won $300 at a meet in Australia, had sought out Bowman in his junior year to find out how good a swimmer he might become.
Clements and Barone were older and more experienced than Phelps. But "the kid," as they both called him at first, possessed an awesome talent. In Athens, Phelps will swim the 400 and 200 individual medleys -- which combine butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle -- the 200 freestyle and the 200 and 100 butterfly, in addition to as many as three relays.
At dinner, the two talked about how hard they trained, and how hard it was to keep on weight, which they said they burned off like jet fuel.
They spoke with pride about their sport, about how they studied its nuances. And they talked about their goals.
"Medal at the Olympics," said Clements, who just missed making the Olympic team in 2000. "That's my ultimate goal."
Barone said: "I'd like to go to the Olympics. Anybody in the pool at this level is thinking that. But the other thing [is]: I just want to be able to look back when I'm older and know that I gave this a legitimate effort. . . . I don't ever want to wonder, 'What if?' "
Clements said he had come to Baltimore with his goal, and Phelps, in mind. "I came here specifically to train with the best 200 and 400 IMer in the world," he said. Phelps holds the world record in both events.
Once in Baltimore, Clements's improvement was dramatic. "I know that had a lot to do with the fact that day in and day out I was racing Michael," he said.
Clements said Phelps beat him most of the time, but "I beat him sometimes." He also realized, "I'm swimming with the best swimmer in the world right now, and the closer I can get to him, the better I'm going to be."
Barone asked Bowman to take him on in 2001. The coach warned him the work would be hard, and it was. At first, he was regularly beaten in practice by 14-year-old girls. "It was demoralizing," he said. But gradually he got better.
Both men said this was their moment. The next summer Olympics would be in 2008. "Four years is a looong time," Barone said.
Asked what would happen if they didn't make the team, Barone said, "That's something I really have to consider." He was still three seconds shy of being competitive in his best event, the 100 breaststroke.
Clements said: "That's something I don't even answer. I don't want to even think about what if I don't make the team."
Something Is Not Right
At about 6 p.m. Monday night, July 12, when Clements stood behind the starting block for the final of the 200 IM near the close of the Olympic trials, he knew that something was missing.
He had been preparing for this for a year. He felt that he was in good physical condition. But he also felt a strange psychic weariness. Here he was, in front of 9,800 people, ready for what was, perhaps, the most important race of his life. He should have been feeding off the excitement, ready to attack the pool. But he wasn't. He had felt emotionally drained since before the start of the meet.
As he stood in front of Lane 6, Phelps stood two lanes over by the coveted Lane 4, in the middle of the pool.
The crowd still was buzzing over Phelps's first race that night, a half hour earlier, in which he suffered a startling loss in the final of the 200 backstroke. And Phelps had yet another race, after the 200 individual medley.
It was, indeed, Phelps's night, and Phelps's meet. Clements just needed to place second to make the team.
He had come to the trials planning on swimming four events, but cut that down to two: the 200 freestyle and the 200 IM. He already had failed to make the grade in the 200 freestyle the week before. This was his last shot.
"I was confident," he said. "I just didn't have the emotion to go along with it."
He finished more than two seconds slower than his best time in the event, and lost to other swimmers he believes he should have beaten. "I don't know what happened," he said. "All I can say is that . . . it just wasn't there."
Phelps won the race, as expected.
"After it was all over, it was real emotional," Clements said. "The first thing that went through my mind was how embarrassing this is." Losing in front of his parents, three brothers and all his supporters was awful.
He dragged himself out of the pool. He spoke briefly to Bowman. Then he took a walk with his younger brother, Joey. "Not much was said," he said.
Later, his parents, Bill and Pat, took the family to dinner and told him they were proud of him. "I didn't want to talk about it," Clements said. "I didn't want to hear it."
Barone, too, had fared poorly, also in front of his parents, and five younger brothers and sisters. Afterward, he and his family went to the ocean to relax. "I just laid on the beach for three hours," he said.
Last Tuesday, with the trials a week in the past and Athens three weeks in the future, both said they were reflecting on the last year.
"There is no way that anything anybody can throw at me at this point is going to be harder than what I just went through," Barone said of training for the Olympics. "I stepped up on the blocks, in front of 10,000 people, in a loincloth. . . . The only thing I had to fall back on was what I put into this."
Clements said his trip back to school next month in the middle of the Games could be tough. He flies back to Baltimore to get his things on Aug. 14, the same day swimming begins in Athens and Phelps goes for his first gold medal.
It is 800 miles from Baltimore to Auburn, and Clements guessed he would hear about it on the road. By then, he said, he would probably feel better about things, and be able to listen and watch, "to support the people that I know so well."
"But I can tell you right now," he said. "If I miss a couple of events it's not going to kill me."