Playing Through

Eric Shanteau may be the third-fastest individual medley swimmer in the world, but that doesn't guarantee him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team

Eric Shanteau
Eric Shanteau (Photo by Thomas Hackett)

Disappointment has only made him hungrier, more determined, Eric Shanteau will tell you.

I'm sure he means it. Still.

How do you not feel the injustice of it? In your events, you're probably the third best swimmer in the world, ever. And yet, four years ago, you were three-tenths of a second away from simply getting invited to the Olympics. Had you gone, you'd likely have come home with a medal.

Because it's not enough being the third-fastest individual medley swimmer in the world. Just to get to the Olympics, you've got to be the second-fastest individual medley swimmer in the United States. You may be faster than the Hungarian dude who ends up getting the bronze, and it's for sure that you're faster than the Tunisian guy who finishes ninth. But that doesn't matter. They get to compete, and you don't.

"Obviously, it was pretty devastating at first," Shanteau said of finishing just behind the eventual gold- and silver-medal winners four years ago. "It was devastating for a while, actually, but ..."

In swimming, they talk about being in a good line, maintaining a streamlined position, swimming within yourself throughout the race, even when you're behind. Catching up with Shanteau recently at the UT Swimming Center, I asked if this whole "good line" thing might provide a useful metaphor for keeping an eye on the prize despite the disappointments along the way.

"Definitely," he said. "I'm not going to be the first one at the wall, at the first turn. But I close strong."

The problem is he's trying to close on Michael Phelps, winner of six gold medals in Athens, Greece, and the world-record holder in 23 events.

"It is an honor to be swimming in this era, competing against Michael," Shanteau said. "But it's also frustrating."

At 6 feet 2 inches, Shanteau cuts an arresting figure. He's basically all chest and shoulders and nothing else – nothing but a big pair of feet. Yet after his workout last week, hundreds of the best high school swimmers in Texas were milling around the pool, getting ready for the state 4A and 5A championships that night, and not one of them noticed him, it seemed. Chances are they've never heard of him.

Shanteau is a modest guy and isn't looking for attention. The day before, he was the star attraction at a Swim to Beijing Relay, sponsored by Hilton Hotels, adding a couple of laps to the 6,250 that kids across the country are swimming, each lap representing one mile of distance from Los Angeles to the site of the 2008 games. He did his part, had fun with the kids, signed autographs, yet couldn't talk about his turn as the local "celebrity swimmer" without putting the phrase in self-effacing air quotes.

Fame is not his aim. Having failed to make the Olympic team twice before, his goals are simple.

"I just want to make the team; that's all. I fantasize about hitting the wall and looking up and seeing a '1' or '2' next to my name. A '1' would be great. But you know what? A '2' would be just as good."

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Eric Shanteau, Michael Phelps, Olympics, Swim to Beijing Relay

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