On the last lap Fourth Olympic bid: At 26, Michelle Griglione looks to put an exclamation point on her swimming career by making the Olympics.

March 06, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Swimming has taken Michelle Griglione all over the world, has provided her a college education and, for the past 12 years, has been the vehicle on which she has ridden a wild roller coaster of competitive emotions.

Griglione, 26, has eight medals from world-class events and an attic full of other mementos from a career that began at the Y in Alexandria, Va., when she was 6.

"She finished sixth and got a pink ribbon, but she loved it because pink was her favorite color," Carolyn Griglione said of her only child's first race. "Everything is in boxes. You'd never know she swims."

That career likely will end either at this year's U.S. Olympic trials, which begin today and run through Tuesday in Indianapolis, or at the Olympics in Atlanta this summer.

Regardless of what happens, Griglione said it's nearly time to come out of the pool.

"In some respects, I feel sort of sad because it could be my last race," Griglione said last week. "But I also feel excited. Basically, I've had such a fantastic career, and I've done so many things."

But it is the one thing she hasn't done -- make an Olympic team -- that will follow Griglione into the pool for the 200-meter butterfly. Few have chased this dream for as long, and gotten as close, as Griglione.

It began in 1984 in Indianapolis. Griglione, then finishing her sophomore year at T.C. Williams High School, finished third in the 200 individual medley and fourth in the 400 IM at her first Olympic trials.

"It was very exciting," she recalled. "I was really surprised that I got that close at all."

In 1988, Griglione came to Austin, Texas, for the trials a more experienced and more confident swimmer. A junior-to-be at Stanford, Griglione finished third in the 200 butterfly and 400 IM, fourth in the 100 butterfly and 200 IM. "I was two-tenths of a second -- if that -- away in the 200 [butterfly]," said Griglione.

Then came 1992, again in Indianapolis. By this time, Griglione was back home, training under her former coach, Rick Curl. After graduating the year before with a degree in chemical engineering, she had contemplated the end of her career.

"But when I went back to Rick, my times had gotten faster and faster," she said.

But not quite fast enough.

Griglione finished fourth in both the 200 butterfly and the 200 IM.

Now, she is trying again, this time as the most decorated swimmer in U.S. history not to have made an Olympic team.

It is sort of the same as being called the best pro golfer never to have won a major, or the best college basketball coach never to have taken a team to a Final Four.

"When people say it, they mean it to be positive," said Griglione, who has won individual medals at the World Championships, Pan Am Games, Goodwill Games and Pan Pacific Championships. "It is something I would not like to be known for. But I'm proud of what I've done.

"For young kids coming up, it's a testimony that the Olympics are not everything, that you can get something out of swimming even if you don't make the Olympics. I had a friend ask me recently, 'If you're not swimming just to make the Olympics, why are you stopping now?' But there've been a lot of swimmers who made the Olympics who did nothing before and did nothing when they were there."

her swimming career was all there was to Griglione's story, it probably would be enough. But it is only part of who she is and who she'll be either this spring or, at the latest, this fall.

Regardless of whether she makes the Olympic team, regardless of how she fares if she is one of the two American women taken to Atlanta for the 200 butterfly, Griglione plans on being to be back at the University of Florida sometime this year.

There she will finish the last 1 1/2 years of her doctoral studies in chemical engineering. When she returned home to train last May, Griglione was working on a NASA-funded project that had been involved in one space shuttle flight -- Endeavor in 1994 -- and could be part of another later this year.

Griglione also wants to resume a more normal personal life, which includes a 2 1/2 -year relationship with Rob Baker. Though they went to high school together, they didn't start dating until after they bumped into each other in Gainesville. Baker is working on his master's in geology.

"Of course, we haven't been together too much," said Griglione. "But he's been very supportive."

Baker will be lending support in Indianapolis, along with Griglione's parents (her father, John, is a former All-America football player at Iowa State). -- lending her support. She certainly will need it. Though she has been ranked in the top

three in her event for the past two years, the two swimmers ahead of her, Whitney Phelps of Baltimore and Trina Jackson of Jacksonville, Fla., are both considered up-and-comers.

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