BARCELONA, Spain -- For Jill Johnson, the waiting was the hardest part.
Her swimming career came down to these excruciating moments yesterday in the preliminaries of the women's 200-meter breaststroke at the 1992 Summer Olympics.
Cooped up in a room for 20 minutes before her race, she paced and waved her arms, anything to try to get her blood flowing, her heart pumping. And then, after finishing second in her heat, she climbed out of the water and stood on the pool deck, squinting into the sun, watching for the times of the last heat, finally realizing that she was not going to get to the final.
Missed it by .02 of a second.
"I knew I was in either eighth or ninth," she said. "I was kind of in
shock. I didn't know what to think or say. All I had to do was hold my time. I didn't. I thought I was tougher than that, but I wasn't."
Johnson, 23, a Lutherville, Md., native who trains in Boston, finished with the ninth-best time in the heats -- and missed the final by one spot. Tears poured down Johnson's cheeks as she sat by the edge of the practice pool. Her journey from swimming obscurity to the Olympics had ended just short of the one race she had worked a career for.
"This isn't exactly what I had in mind for the end of my career," said Johnson, headed next month to Boston University's law school.
A year ago, she followed coach Mike Chasson from Palo Alto, Calif., to Boston to prepare for the Olympics. She swam days at Harvard and worked nights at a restaurant, and then cut an outrageous four seconds off her personal best at the U.S. Olympic trials to win a Barcelona berth.
But the swim team's pre-Olympic training camp in Narbonne, France, might have foiled her Olympic hopes. During training 10 days ago, Johnson got a flu, missed one day of practice and never fully recovered her stroke or her confidence.
"It could have been something I ate for all I know," she said. "I felt really weird. Everyone said I looked like a ghost."
Johnson appeared relaxed before her race. But she was clearly concerned after the finish, when her time of 2:30.80 left her on a bubble, in fourth overall.
"I didn't know if it was the sickness or not, but I didn't feel like I had the easy speed," she said. "I had to work hard for it. I couldn't hold it. I was just slow."
And then, she was out, after Anita Nall of Towson, Md., dragged four others under 2:30 in the last heat.
"I was under the impression that I was crushing my heat, but I wasn't," Johnson said. "Everyone was going slower. I thought I could still get in."
The wait was over. She picked up her gear and headed out of the stadium for a nap. And then she returned five hours later and finished off her career by finishing fourth in the consolation final.
But it wasn't the same as the medal race.
"All I had to do was touch a little harder, and I'd be there," she said. "But I didn't. That's the tough thing to accept. I was close."