“This is what it’s all about.”
That was my thought while I stood in the bowels of Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic Aquatics Stadium, peeking around a curtain to watch one of the most exciting races of the Summer Games’ first weekend.
I had been following a slew of local Olympians leading up to my assignment to Rio, but few impressed me quite like Chase Kalisz. I had read a Washington Post article that profiled his recovery from Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an auto-immune disorder that forced doctors to induce Kalisz into a coma. Kalisz was eight at the time; by 18, he had developed into one of the top young competitive swimmers in the country. He signed on with the University of Georgia and proceeded to set school and NCAA records.
He continued his rocket-like rise this year, upsetting Ryan Lochte at the US Olympic Trials to qualify for the 2016 Summer Games. I interviewed him the day that I left for Rio; he seemed like a genuinely gracious person. But I found myself more moved by a previous interview, after he won at Trials, when he spoke of how much he had dreamed of this moment.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” he said with a grin that wouldn’t go away. “This is the one thing I’ve been wanting to do my entire life. This is been my dream since … it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted this bad.”
That quote told his story. It tells the story of so many athletes who compete in various races and meets that simply don’t approach the grandness of the Olympics. Kalisz would say after his Rio race that he felt less nervous at the Games than at Trials, because he almost felt more pressure to qualify for the Olympics than to medal at them.
On Friday I produced a story about Kalisz’ journey to the Games. On Saturday I headed to the Aquatics Stadium to watch him race. He posted a personal best performance in the preliminary heats to advance to the finals, where he was considered a medal contender alongside two swimmers from Japan.
At 10 PM Rio time, that race began. The PA announcer introduced each swimmer, and when he got to Kalisz, the crowd cheered so loud it drowned out everything else. (Kalisz didn’t hear it, he would tell me later. He was wearing headphones and getting into race mode.) The buzzer sounded, and the finalists dove in. Kalisz, as was typical on this day, got off to a slow start; after the first of four laps, he sat in fourth place.
But then he surged. He gained ground with each lap and eventually pulled into second place behind Japan’s Kosuke Hagino. I stood in the mixed zone, where athletes do interviews after their competitions, but could see most of the action. I found myself next to a reporter from a Japanese TV station, and we had a hard time keeping our objectivity as we watched our national representatives fight for gold.
As Hagino and Kalisz hit the stretch, the crowd got even louder than before. Kalisz seemed to be gaining, and we started to think he could pull off the comeback.
But he didn’t. He fell 0.7 seconds short.
When the race ended, pretty much everyone I saw in the mixed zone seemed exhilarated. The Japanese reporter and I shook hands, and then when Kalisz came around the corner to talk with us, he showed similar sportsmanship while talking about the swimmer to whom he lost.
Through it all, I remained caught up in the excitement of the race. But somewhere within that time frame, I recognized for a quick second how beautiful I found this moment. I had not met Chase Kalisz until recently; I had not heard of Hagino until earlier that day. But I became riveted by their battle. This, I thought, is what the Olympics does so well in terms of athletic competition.
This is what it’s all about.
And after a week of touring Rio and learning about its culture, I delighted in the opportunity to revel in this signature sports event.
Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.