That’s what it was for Caeleb Dressel, Blake Pieroni, Bowen Becker and Zach Apple, worth it. That quartet produced a powerful, disciplined swim that won the men’s 4x100-meter relay at Tokyo Aquatics Centre — an expected result, even when it’s unfair to expect such achievements before they happen. Their time of 3 minutes 8.97 seconds left no room for over-analysis. They led after 100 meters, after 200, after 300 and at the finish, when Apple touched the wall.
“I wasn’t ever scared,” Dressel said.
That’s Olympic joy. And then there is what Torri Huske endured.
There is virtually no way, when a swimming race ends, for the competitors to accurately assess what just happened by looking at the competitors around them. Rather, they must clear the chlorine from their eyes and whip their heads around to focus in on a massive scoreboard at the opposite end of the pool. The numbers posted there change lives. Dressel and his mates are gold medalists Monday and forever.
Huske is not — not yet. On Monday, she put her hand on the wall after the women’s 100-meter butterfly, an event in which she had posted the fastest time in the world this year. But when she blinked her eyes and begin processing those numbers, what they revealed was nothing but cruelty.
“I hit the wall, and I don’t know,” Huske, the 18-year-old from Arlington, said immediately afterward. “I kind of didn’t really know what was happening until I looked at the scoreboard and saw it.”
Look away if you can’t stand the worst kind of Olympic emotion. Gold at these Tokyo Games went to Canada’s Maggie MacNeil in 55.59 seconds — faster than Huske’s best-of-2021 time at the U.S. trials last month. China’s Yufei Zhang was all of five-hundredths behind, silver by a breath.
And then there were the following numbers: 55.72 beside the name of Australia’s Emma McKeon and 55.73 beside the name of Huske.
Fourth, by one-hundredth of a second. Missed a medal, by one-hundredth of a second.
“Heh,” Huske said, trying to do just that, searching for the right words even though she had almost no time to find them. “Obviously, that’s kind of like — not disappointing, but, like, I did … you always want to medal. It always comes down to the little things, and that’s what I need to keep working on.”
On the second day of swimming finals, there was all manner of drama — though Huske’s near miss is up there for most excruciating. Great Britain’s Adam Peaty, who has no peer in the 100-meter breaststroke, backed up the gold he won in Rio de Janeiro with another here. Peaty’s swim of 57.37 is just the fifth-fastest time of his career, which happens to be the fifth-fastest time ever. Peaty now owns the fastest 19 times in the event, as dominant as any swimmer in anything.
The wrinkle there: Italy’s Nicolo Martinenghi touched in 58.33 — enough for bronze. Next best: American Michael Andrew, all of 0.51 seconds off the podium. Another fourth-place finish for the United States.
And then there was the women’s 400-meter freestyle — an event once dominated by American Katie Ledecky, the Bethesda legend who won gold in Rio. But Ledecky’s new rival, Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, outswam her over the final 100 meters to take gold. Plus, Regan Smith of the United States set a new Olympic record in a semifinal heat of the women’s 100 backstroke, 57.86.
That’s a lot in one session. But it began with the women’s 100 fly, with such a stout field. Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom entered the pool not only as the world record holder but as the gold medalist five years ago in Rio who owned seven of the 10 fastest times in history. Indeed, by previous accomplishments, Huske was a comparative nobody in the field. MacNeil, who won the race at the 2019 world championships, swam from Lane 7. McKeon, already with a gold medal in Sunday’s 4x100-meter freestyle relay here, was the bronze medalist at those worlds and swam inside Huske in Lane 3.
No one, though, had posted a faster time in the world this year than Huske’s 55.66 seconds at the U.S. trials.
For so much of the run-up and the race, Huske was poised and strong. She had her left foot on the starting block in Lane 2 before the entire field had been announced and over the first length of the pool was second only to Zhang.
But over the second 50 meters, Huske fought merely to hang on. MacNeil — seventh at the turn — dusted the field with a split of 29.09, enough to overtake everybody. Zhang hung on for second. Huske fell victim to a final 50 of 29.89 seconds — more than four seconds slower than her opening length.
“I still feel like there are small things that I need to work on more,” Huske said in assessing her race. “But I haven’t seen it yet, so I haven’t really looked at it, so I don’t know for sure. But it was okay.”
Monday’s session concluded with the relay, always a marquee event. For the first time since 2000, the Americans entered a final without the legendary Michael Phelps, who helped the United States set a world record at the 2008 Beijing Games — the epic race in which Jason Lezak tracked down the French over the final 25 meters — and win another gold in Rio, an event in which Dressel led off.
On Monday, Dressel led off again — this time with three teammates who had never touched the water in an Olympic final.
“We know there’s a target on our back every year,” Dressel said. “We don’t need the same guys every go-round.”
Over the first 50 meters, Dressel essentially glided over the water, turning in 22.24, more than a half-second faster than Italy. The dominance was established. At only one split — the 150-meter mark, when Pieroni lost the lead to France — did the Americans trail. But by the time Pieroni finished his leg, he had returned the lead to Bowen, who handed it to Apple — who closed with a leg of 46.69 seconds, the fastest of any swimmer Monday.
“It’s easy when these three guys are leading me out, giving me a lead,” Apple said. “I love living in the pressure. It’s kind of why we race.”
With racing, though, comes the risk of being evaluated by eye blinks and finger snaps. Withstand it, and you might listen to “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the medal stand, as those four American men did.
But before that came the medal ceremony for the women’s 100 butterfly. In that, MacNeil stood proudly on the middle podium, Zhang to her left, McKeon to her right. As “O Canada” played through the arena, she sang the words through her mask, then posed for pictures with Zhang and McKeon, all three holding up their medals.
And somewhere, Torri Huske walked away with the reality that, but for one-hundredth of a second, she would have joined them.