Heartbreak on the Way Home

by Casey Barrett

Solidarity for Canada’s Stefan Hirniak…

“What can you say?” asked my friend Adam. “It’s beyond words.”

I didn’t have an answer. Still don’t. Not really sure why I’m even writing this. All I know is that I don’t think I’ve ever felt for a fellow swimmer – a guy I’ve never met – more in my life. And Adam and I both know that a fellow Canadian 200 flyer could really use some support right about now. His name is Stefan Hirniak. Last night at the Canadian Olympic Trials, he missed making the Team over the final 25 meters of the race, fading to finish 4th. The exact same thing happened to him four years ago, at the Trials for Beijing. Both times he was a favorite to make it. Both times it came down to that final 50, heading for home.

The Adam I’m referring to is Adam Sioui – the guy who won the 200 fly at Canadian Trials back in 2008. The same event I won, in the same pool in Montreal, twelve years before that, in 1996. 200 flyers tend to be a certain tribe of swimmer, same as the quirky breaststrokers or the masochistic milers. Not sure what adjective you stick in front of the flyers, but you know the type. When you represent the same country, swimming the same event, over a few generations of National Teams, you tend to look out for the guys who come next. Hirniak came next.

He was faster than Sioui or I. He’s the Canadian Record Holder in fact, with a lifetime best of 1:57.01. A time recorded back in 2010, without the benefit of the Suits, I might add.

Heartbreak is part of the Olympic Trials. In any country, any sport. When you get down to it, it’s what gives these pressure-drenched events their beauty. So few go home with glowing hearts, their goals fulfilled. Most limp back to their home pools with dashed Olympic dreams. But few experience heartbreak on the scale of Hirniak.

It’s something you don’t get over anytime soon. But there is a bright light at the end of this dark tunnel…

I told my partner Lars about what happened to Hirniak last night in Montreal. His response was thoughtful, and not what you’d expect to hear right after this level of disappointment: “Well, if he’s able to look at it the right way, it will probably make him more successful in his life after swimming,” said Lars.

Come again? Isn’t the cliché supposed to be how becoming an Olympian makes everything after that much easier? How that great sporting success informs your later professional career, injecting you with a level of special Games-anointed confidence? Well, not exactly, not for everyone.

Lars proceeded to point out a laundry list of former Olympic champions (who shall remain nameless…) whose lives effectively stopped right after their mighty moment of glory. In the true, tragic “To An Athlete Dying Young” way… (If you don’t know A.E. Housman’s classic poem, please read it now, right HERE.) That success becomes a high water mark that can never be duplicated, so the rest of days become a rather sad dull buzz kill, with the volume turned way down.

But to miss it? To get so very close, not once but twice? To have the wall within sight like that…

That’s not something you wish upon anyone. But I’ll tell you what it is: This is someone you want to hire once those psychic wounds have had some time to heal. It’s someone I’d bet large sums of money on succeeding – once that new path is taken.

I know Stefan Hirniak doesn’t want to hear it right now. Would you? But this isn’t some look-at-the-bright-side spin to a Trials Heartbreak. This is actually the case. Life extends a whole hell of a lot longer than a few cruel moments in a swimming pool in your 20’s. And when those moments don’t pan out as planned, well, those are often the men and women who stay hungry for life.

Who go on to truly great things, far beyond mere Games…