Third No More

by Casey Barrett

David Plummer, Liz Pelton, and post Olympic redemption… 

They’re a part of a fraternity that no one wants to join. They’ve endured a circle of swimming hell that you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemies. They’re the third place finishers at the U.S. Olympic Trials. You’d rather place dead last. Hell, you’d rather false start and never get wet than have to feel that particular oh-so-close pain.

Or maybe not. Maybe there’s virtue in that kind of cruel heartbreak. What doesn’t kill you and all… Always hated that cliché.

David Plummer and Elizabeth Pelton know how this feels all too well. Last summer in Omaha, this pair of backstroke badasses placed 3rd – three times. With Plummer feeling the pain in the 100 back and Pelton getting a double dose of third, in the 200 back and the 200 IM.

In the men’s 100 back, Plummer raced to first last place in Omaha, missing the Team by .12. The guy who got his hand on the wall that much quicker, Nick Thoman, went on to win silver in London behind teammate Matt Grevers. That’s how it goes in the 100 back in the U.S. With disturbing regularity, this has to be considered the deepest, hardest to make event in all of American swimming. If you make the team in the 100 back, chances are you’re going to be standing on the podium at whatever international meet comes next.

Pelton faced a similar scenario. In the women’s 200 back, she missed London by half a second – and the ladies who finished 1-2, Missy Franklin and Elizabeth Beisel, went on to own the Olympic podium. Yet, her third in the 200 IM was probably even more painful. In that one, she missed the Team by .25, and seemed to have her spot sewn up before Ariana Kukors managed to charge past her in the closing meters in Omaha.

I doubt Mr. Plummer or Ms. Pelton care to read those salt in the wound recaps. And nor should they. Because in the case of those two, it appears that old cliché is true. Trials heartbreak didn’t kill them, and they’ve emerged stronger than ever.

A few weeks back at the World Champ Trials in Indy, Plummer got his hand on the wall first, ahead of those long arms of Matt Grevers, and reclaimed his spot on the U.S. National Team. If tradition serves, he’ll soon be standing on a podium in Barcelona.

As for Pelton, it’s clear that her third places in Omaha have already been long forgotten. At Cal last year, she took her strokes to a new level, breaking the American record in the 200 yard back at NCAAs. In Indy, she posted times that place her in some stunning company. Her 2:06.29 in the 200 back ranks her 2nd in the world right now (behind Franklin) and is the 4th fastest swim ever, not in one of those silly super-suits from ’08-’09. Pelton also posted a big time 100 back, cruising well under a minute, with a 59.27, a time that puts her 4th in the world heading into Barcelona.

You know you love these stories. Everybody loves a comeback. But these aren’t exactly comebacks. These two never left. They just refused to lie down. To get so close to fulfilling the ultimate swimmer’s dream – an Olympic berth – is crushing on the psyche. There’s no way around it. Somewhere in the core of their beings, there is a scar, and that scar isn’t going away.

Yet with one year down and three to go before Rio, these two are doing right by all those other Third Placers out there. The ones who bravely shoulder swimming’s version of a Purple Heart.

I wouldn’t wish third at Trials on anyone, but I know who I’ll be pulling for when they take their marks in the years ahead.