Start with a lifetime in the pool. Consider all the hours fighting through the monotony of training. Add all the days in the weight room. Factor in all the months of travel and years of dreaming.
Then consider the cruelest 16/100ths of a second of Megan Romano's life.
As it turns out, that is the measure of a heartbeat. Romano clung to the side of the pool Thursday night at the Olympic trials, glancing up at a scoreboard that dared to suggest she had finished seventh in the 200-meter freestyle. Seventh!.
In an event in which the St. Petersburg native had set an American record three months ago, in an event won by her best friend, in an event in which the top six finishers are almost certain to make the trip to London, Romano was seventh.
Again, by 16th/100ths of a second.
Heartache, it turns out, is just that quick.
This is the agonizing part of a sport in which success is measured in fractions. One snap of the fingers is the difference between making an Olympic team and swallowing disappointment.
For the rest of Romano's life, this is the time that will haunt her. She missed by 16/100ths of a second. If you consider all her training miles, it is as if she has swum across the Atlantic only to run out of gas a few yards from shore. It is crushing, and it devastating.
Romano, a former Northeast High star, had been swimming so well over the past year, including her college season at Georgia. Even in this race, she was second at the first turn, second at the second, third at the third. Fifty meters more and it seemed she would be on her way. And then she faded, swimming the final length of the pool in 31.57 seconds, the worst 50 of any of the eight competitors.
Afterward, Romano moved through the mixed zone with the media slowly, the disappointment etched on her face. Her lips were tight. There was pain in her eyes. A couple of reporters called her name, urging her to stop and talk. She gave a short shake of her head and walked on.
She is not done. There is still the 100-meter freestyle race today. The Olympics are still possible.
For now, however, there is the pain of barely missing. In the 200 free, the top four finishes are assured of a spot on the team, and those who finish fifth and sixth are almost a certain bet for relay teams. (An American in the top six has never failed to make an Olympic team.)
Romano finished seventh in 1 minute, 58.56 seconds.
"She just went out too fast and died," said Tom Romano, Megan's father. "She knows it. She tried to stay with Allison (Schmitt, Romano's buddy, who won in 1:54.40). She went out way, way too quick.
"I know she thought this was her best chance to make the team, but we (Tom and wife Rhonda) always thought it was the 100. We'll see."
• • •
A day before the race, Megan Romano sat in an interview room a few yards from the pool and talked about her progress over the past year.
Her mood was light, and her voice was strong and confident. At the moment, she seemed a million miles from disappointment. She was a young woman who had rediscovered her love of the sport, who had finally harnessed her focus. London didn't seem that far away.
That, too, is the sport of swimming. When you least expect it, it can wring you out like a wet towel.
For a long time, Romano seemed to have plateaued. Progress had come slowly. A year ago, Georgia coach Jack Bauerle said she swam perhaps the fourth-fastest time in the 200 on her college team.
This year, at 21, Romano has re-arrived. At the NCAA championships, she set an American record in winning the 200-yard freestyle. She has worked harder. She has practiced better.
"Basically, I was more focused," she said. "I wasn't always one to practice to the best of my abilities. This year I've really pushed myself."
Some of that was because of the Olympics, a goal others had mentioned to Romano long before she had believed in it herself. Some of that, perhaps, was maturity. Some of it, too, may have come in a tough-love scolding from swim coach Bob Bowman, the coach of Olympian Michael Phelps.
It was a year ago, and Romano was in Colorado Springs for altitude training. Bowman didn't like what he saw and wasted no time telling her about it.
"She was being lazy, and I called her out," Bowman said. "I told her "You're the first person who has ever been to my camp that I don't want here. And I threatened to send her home.
"I told her, 'You aren't even scratching the surface of what you can do.' … I had a long talk with her, and Jack had a long talk with her. She decided to stay, and she turned it around. It seems to have lit a fire under her."
For whatever reason, that seemed to click with Romano. It brought her to the brink of the Olympics. "If I don't make it, I won't be devastated," she said. "I won't fall off the earth. But it's something I really want."
• • •
Two blinks faster Thursday and Romano would have flashed that wide, toothy smile of hers to all of America. Three blinks and she might have broken into a British accent.
She is a terrific kid, a self-proclaimed goofball. What a shame America didn't get to see it Thursday. Maybe it will yet. Romano still has the 100 meters to swim. Her dream is down to its last chance.
Don't give up, her mother, Rhonda, kept saying Thursday night. Whatever you do, don't give up.