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They say fourth is the hardest place to finish, and nowhere is that more true than in the Olympic Track and Field Trials, as typically the top three make the team. But the competitors we saw this year are showing us all what it means to accept loss with dignity (while still feeling your feelings).
In a recent Instagram post, Trials commentator for NBC Kara Goucher recalled her fourth place finish in the 2016 Marathon Trials as “awful,” “terrible,” and “unbearable.” She knows how all the athletes who did not make the team are feeling. (As a two-time Olympian, she also knows how the women who made the team feel).
“This is truly living—wanting something so much it can break your heart in an instant,” Goucher wrote.
It’s a loss that hundreds of athletes must grapple with, sometimes several times over.
For 5,000 meter runner Abbey Cooper, who came in fourth behind Elise Cranny, Karissa Schweizer, and Rachel Schneider, her loss was thrust into the spotlight. After a gutsy preliminary round, it seemed the whole internet was was watching and rooting for her.
She handled the attention well. “I’ve felt so comforted and loved by the outpouring of heartfelt encouragement over the past week,” she wrote on Instagram three days after her race.
Cooper also wrote about the sting of coming close to her dream. “And yet, running the Olympic standard, being in contention for a team after years of hardship, the way all of it unfolded—is genuinely ‘more than I could have asked or imagined, according to his power. (Eph 3:20),’” she wrote. In her post-race interview, Cooper mentioned that she has drawn on her faith to help her believe in herself.
Shannon Osika, who came in fourth in the 1,500 meter final behind Elle Purrier St. Pierre, Cory McGee, and Heather MacLean, also shared her feelings about her race on Instagram: “I want everyone to know that I am stoked about my 4th place finish at the Olympic Trials!” Her goal was only to run her best race, which is what she says she did.
Osika narrowly missed making the team, running a 4:02.18 behind third place MacLean’s 4:02.09
Osika went on to share how important it is for her to be proud and present where she is now, not where she could have been. “I’ve noticed people feeling disappointed for me, but please don’t!! I don’t get caught up in accolades, they can be blinding and distort your perception,” she wrote.
Fourth place finisher in the 3,000 meter steeplechase, Courtney Wayment of BYU, is looking to the future. “I was fortunate that I got fourth at my first Olympic Trials showing,” she said in a post-race interview. “I’ve got a lot left in me.”
Of course, not making it to the Olympics isn’t only a dream dashed for those near misses. Stephanie Bruce, who came in 13th in the 10,000 meters, reflected on what it feels like to not be close. With a few laps to go, racing alongside her teammate Kellyn Taylor, she had a realization: “Not everyone gets to see their dreams come true. But to not give up and line up with whatever you have can be just as brave,” she wrote on Instagram. She proclaimed that she has no intention of giving up.
Elite marathoner Sara Hall is perhaps the most ready to move on to the next goal. Two days after coming in sixth in the 10,000 meter race at the Trials, it was announced that she’d be competing in the Chicago Marathon this fall and going for the American record.
Despite her forward looking, she has also expressed her disappointment on social media. She believed she could make the team heading to Tokyo. “Still grateful for this gift, even when this sport breaks my heart for the hundredth time. Still believing the best is yet to come,” she wrote on Instagram.
Triple Olympic gold medalist Tianna Bartoletta, who came in 10th place in the long jump, poured her thoughts into a blog post. After feeling like she’s worked harder and more intentionally in this lead up only to do worse than anticipated, she reflects that “the outcome can’t actually be the reason you do the work. Because you can’t know it. Until you do.” Her biggest takeaway is a combination of two differing understandings about life: “No effort is wasted/ AND/ Hard work doesn’t always pay off,” she writes. And if it’s true that no effort is wasted, she intends to stick around to find out what that effort was all for.
Each of these athletes have left the Olympic Trials with a shared experience of an extreme high and an extreme low. They are all able to acknowledge the hard-felt disappointment and the joyous parts of the journey at the same time. Sometimes we expect someone (or ourselves) to feel a certain way, when in reality we all have a multitude of emotions swimming inside at any one time. Oftentimes they are conflicting. It’s in acknowledging that dissonance between the opposing feelings and living in that uncomfortable moment that we grow.