How close is one-hundredth of a second?
"It's so close it's not even funny," said speed skater J.P. Shilling, who can laugh about it now.
That blink of an eye, that whisker, that almost-photo-finish measurement of time is what put Shilling on the U.S. Olympic team Wednesday night.
The Baltimore native edged K.C. Boutiette in the 1,500-meter event during the U.S. Long Track Olympic Trials in Kearns, Utah.
"In speed skating, I don't know how you would measure that amount of time with your hands, the difference between K.C. and me. Is it even a centimeter?" he asked.
Shilling said he didn't realize that he made the team until he heard the announcer and saw the reaction of his coach, Tom Cushion.
"We were high-fiving each other and almost tore our arms off. I've been on the other side of losing by one-hundredth of a second, and it feels terrible," he said.
Last night, Shilling once again defeated Boutiette, beating him by almost 4 1/2 seconds to win the 5,000-meter event. Although that qualifies Shilling for the World Cup competition in that event next month in the Netherlands, it does not ensure him a place on the U.S. team at that distance.
Cushion, who took over coaching him this season, said he could sense in the weeks leading up to the race that this might be Shilling's breakthrough.
"I could see the power, and at various times, the technical skills. He was having trouble putting it together, but I could see the development coming," he explained. "The day before, he skated the 1,000 [meter], which is not his race. But it was so technically perfect with a lot of speed and power that I told him, `If you skate that same way in the 1,500, you'll make it.' "
The Utah Olympic Oval, site of the speed skating events at the Winter Games, is at an altitude of 4,675 feet. The thin air and the lack of humidity creates fast ice, which has smoothed the way for a number of world records this year and most likely will again in February at the Olympics.
All of Shilling's personal-best times have been this year, and all but one happened in Utah. The surface helped Shilling this week post a time of 1 minute, 47.26 seconds, his best mark by 1.3 seconds.
"I was on. I was feeling really, really good," he said. "I've never felt that way."
Shilling drew the white armband to skate the inside lane at the start of the event. Chris Callis of Sudlersville drew the outside.
"I like the inner. I like to hammer that first turn and get a good lead," Shilling says. "Then the guy on the outside sees how far ahead I am, and he has to scramble. It makes him rush his strokes and expend a lot of energy."
The strategy paid off. And when Callis crossed over to the inside, Shilling made that work to his advantage, too, by drafting on him. Although Callis had a good second half, he could not make up the time and finished sixth at 1:48.13.
"I was so focused on my race that at the [crossover] he was in front of me, and I never saw him. I looked through him," Shilling says.
For Shilling, timing was everything in more than one sense. On Thursday, he reached the birthday that, by his own admission, makes him "an old man." Making the team took the edge off the big 3-0.
"I was dwelling on that day for a long time," he says. "Luckily, winning gave me a cushion."
Shilling, a Dulaney High School graduate, has been skating since he was a little boy. He was competing in national races by age 12.
Although he played baseball and soccer in school, they gradually took a back seat to skating.
He made the short track World Team in the 1995-96 season.
This time last year at the U.S. Allround Speed Skating Championships, Shilling finished second to Callis in the 500-meter event, with a time of 37.13.
In January, at the North America/Oceania Regional Qualifier, Shilling qualified for the World Allarounds by finishing seventh. He went to the world championships in Budapest, Hungary, where he finished 21st in the 1,500-meter event and 24th overall.
Although his parents, Bob Shilling and Joan Clark, and his stepfather, Lloyd Clark, have been an integral part of his career, they weren't in Utah this week. That was by design.
"I didn't want them out here," Shilling said, laughing. "Dad gets too nervous. Mom does, too. I don't like those vibes."
He called them after the grueling race, "right after I was able to walk again. This was a big victory for them as well."
Bob Shilling cried at the news. "I was thrilled after 24 years of cheers and tears. It was the greatest feeling a dad could have. It was second only to his birth. I told him, `You're an Olympian now, and that's something they can never take away from you.' "
Shilling said next year will be his last on the competitive circuit. The exercise-induced asthma he suffers "just destroys me. After races, I'm a little bit sick."
At 30, it's time to get on with his life and find a career. "This is it," he said. "A lot of people don't want me to stop skating, but my parents know. I'm just worn out."
He'll be flying home for the holidays. If he gets back in time, he'd like to find a way to go to the Ravens game. Then it's back to work, with an eye toward Feb. 19 when he toes the starting line for the most important race of his career.
"This is everything. This is like the Super Bowl. This is the show," he said.