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Olympic-size disappointment leads to new discoveries for Chadwick

April 23, 2017 GMT

Michael Chadwick sat on a bench and held his Bible in an Omaha hotel garden. He flipped through the pages of the book of Corinthians, searching for something to help him understand what had just happened.

After two hours, the 21-year-old rising senior reached for his iPhone. He typed a brief message to Missouri assistant coach Andrew Grevers, who joined him on the bench 10 minutes later.

Four hours before, Chadwick had competed in the 100-meter freestyle at the 2016 Olympic Trials. As he dove into the pool, his left arm buckled underwater. It fell to his side, halting his momentum and putting him behind from the start of the race.

“That cost him well over a second,” Grevers said.

Chadwick finished preliminaries in 18th place, with a time of 49.61 seconds — two spots and .06 seconds short of making semifinals. The top six finishers in the event made the U.S. 400-meter freestyle relay team.

Though heartbreaking at the time, Chadwick’s Olympic Trials were a formative experience. He is now training for a chance to compete at World Championships this summer and feels more in touch with both his faith and swimming.

In the months leading to the trials, Chadwick had nightmares of false starting. He feared his race would end before it began and that he’d never have a real chance of making the Olympics. He never envisioned making a mistake after the race had started, a fluke destroying his dreams.

The day after the disappointing race, Grevers remembers Chadwick’s parents picking up the swimmer from the pool. The couple smiled at Grevers and thanked him for helping their son. As the family drove away, the coach turned around. He didn’t want the Chadwicks to see his tears.

“Michael deserved for all of his dreams to come true in that moment,” Grevers said. “He deserved it. Every coach can say that about every athlete, but I’m telling you, that kid had done so many things right. There was nothing more that I wanted at that meet.”

Chadwick emerged as an Olympic-level swimmer the summer after his sophomore year, impressing at national championships and earning a spot on the U.S. National Team. With Olympic Trials only a year away, Chadwick seemed poised to make a run for a spot on the American team.

As the pressure mounted his junior year, Chadwick struggled emotionally. He and his longtime girlfriend broke up weeks before NCAA Championships, and his aunt was in the hospital with a kidney infection. Every day he felt distracted.

Chadwick pressured himself to perform well at Olympic Trials. He saw it as the solution to all his problems.

When he faltered in the 100-meter freestyle in Omaha, Chadwick sat on the pool deck and covered his head with a towel. He cried for 20 minutes.

“That was the worst way that it could have gone down,” Chadwick said. “At least put me in the (100-meter championship) final, let me miss it by a blink. Let me just not be good enough.”

Chadwick swam a 100-meter freestyle time trial the next day, a test swim not for Olympic qualification. With no one to race, he touched the wall in a time that would have made the championship final.

Later in the meet, Chadwick finished sixth in the 50-meter freestyle, setting a personal best. Though he was short of an Olympic berth, his swim was good enough to keep him on the U.S. National Team roster. That, combined with his strong 100-meter test swim, renewed some confidence.

“I’m sure it gave him vindication that he could still compete at that level and gave him the will to keep going,” said Carter Griffin, Chadwick’s Missouri teammate and roommate at Olympic Trials.

The evening after the 50-meter race, Chadwick was back in Columbia, and he and a group of teammates went to a get-together at an East Campus house.

That night, Chadwick ran into senior Cassi Diya, a brown-haired psychology student. Though they had not been formally introduced, Chadwick had previously asked mutual friends to set them up on a date.

“He pursued me for months,” Diya said. “And it was always something that I needed a little more time with.”

While Chadwick was talking to Diya at the get-together, he asked her out to dinner. Diya was hesitant — they were both about to leave Columbia for the summer — but said he could ask again at the start of the school year.

Nine months later, the two are engaged.

“What’s crazy is, if I would have made the (Olympic) team, I would have had to stay (in Omaha) the next day for the ceremony,” Chadwick said. “And then I wouldn’t have come back that next day. There is little to no chance that I would have met her.”

For Chadwick, the son of a pastor in North Carolina, the saga felt meant to be. His 100-meter freestyle at Olympic Trials might have been a heartbreaking incident, but it wasn’t an accident.

Chadwick took a seven-week break after the Olympic Trials. When he came back to Missouri, he felt refreshed. He realized swimming had become his identity his junior year. It wasn’t until his time away from the pool that he learned his true purpose.

“It’s not for just winning,” he said. “It’s using what God gave me to ultimately glorify him and reach other people. It’s amazing the people I can reach by doing this sport.”

With restored hope after the break, Chadwick thrived in his last season as a Missouri Tiger. He earned a gold medal at World Championships in December and was a three-time finalist at the SEC Championships.

All of it was a prelude to the NCAA Championships in March. On the last night of competition, Chadwick raced in the 100-yard freestyle final. In a heat featuring five Olympians, the Missouri senior finished second, posting the fourth fastest time in history.

After touching the wall, Chadwick looked at his coaches in disbelief. He turned to the Missouri fan section and pumped his fist. He was out of breath, but a smile was glued to his face.

“That was the happiest I’ve been after a race,” he said. “Just genuine joy.”

Chadwick was still grinning as he stood on the podium. He described the race as the most impactful moment of his swimming career. After the crushing pain of the previous summer, everything felt right.

Michael Chadwick poses for photo with Olympians Blake Pieroni, Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Held in March at the NCAA Championships. All four competed in the championship final of the 100-yard freestyle, and Chadwick finished second behind Dressel.

Looking back at his Olympic Trials experience, Chadwick vividly remembers driving home to Columbia after finishing his 50-meter freestyle.

He was alone with Grevers in a 12-seat van. Grevers drove while Chadwick slouched in the passenger seat.

As they sped down the dark interstate, they talked about dreams that were crushed and dreams that lived on. They talked about life outside of swimming and hope for the future. They talked about faith and disappointment and how everything happens for a reason.

The conversation lasted five hours, and Chadwick said he wouldn’t have traded the time for anything — not even a trip to the Olympics.

The next night, he met a girl with brown hair.

Supervising editor is Jaime Dunaway.