BARCELONA – In the excruciating eternity that came before the golden moment, Nicole Haislett braced herself against the wall of the pool and stared skyward in the direction that prayers are aimed.
To the rest of the world, the result was to come as quickly as the snapping of a finger. But doubt deals time into a different dimension, and for Nicole Haislett the final few seconds on the other side of history moved slowly.
And then the lights, the golden-colored lights on the scoreboard of the Piscina de Montjuic burst on, putting the very sun to shame.
Meet Nicole Haislett.
Officially, Monday's 200-meter freestyle race passed faster than any in Haislett's life. She swam a personal best of 1 minute 57.90 seconds, quick even by microwave time, to beat Franziska Van Almsick of Germany by one-tenth of a second. Unofficially, however, the race lasted some 14 years, since the day Ben and Jo Ann Haislett decided that if their little girl was going to live in Florida, she darned well better learn her way around swimming pools.
How many laps? How many inhales and exhales and end-of-the-pool U-turns? How many silent, speechless hours of staring at the pale blue bottom of a pool? How many times rapping your head to get the water to drain from your ear? How many hours of moving weights around while friends went for pizza?
Just enough, it turns out, to stand on a victory stand with a golden shield around your neck and listen to your national anthem serenade your triumph.
"This is worth every bit of it, and more," Haislett said. "This is incredible. This is everything I have dreamed for since I was a little girl."
At 19, she is bulletproof. With her warmup jacket on, hiding the definition that was earned in the weight room, her face remains that of a young girl. But inside Nicole Haislett, there is something that does not bend, something made of tungsten.
So many athletes would have withered Monday night. A day earlier, Haislett had finished a wrenching fourth in the 100 meter freestyle and had wondered aloud why her speed had left her.
"There were some thoughts that weren't good that entered my mind," she said. "I had to try to push them out. But I was thinking things like "What if I don't do this and I don't win an individual gold medal?' It was like "Great. The Olympic experience isn't all it's cracked up to be." "
But if Haislett spent most of Sunday disappointed, she was to spend most of Monday frightened. Monday, 14-year-old Wunderkind Van Almsick blew away the field with a qualifying time of, ironically, 1:57.90. That was chilling to Haislett, for her best time was a 1:58.65.
"I was scared," Haislett said. "I usually don't get scared, but I wanted this so badly. Francie swam such a great race."
So how do you fight that? Do you jump into the pool and swim as if the piranha are chasing, and hope you do not fade? Do you hope Van Almsick's time was a fluke and simply hope she will come back to your level? Do you panic?
No. Not if you are Haislett. If you are Haislett, you leave the disappointment and the frustration and the fear. And you figure out that a race that is great and smart beats a race that is simply great.
"The best race of the day was Nicole's, " said U.S. coach Jon Urbanchek. "It was a classic."