Tanglewilde’s Hayley McGregory has never given up – what an inspiration!

Thu Jul 23, 2009    By Alan Abrahamson / Universal Sports

McGregoryH1872ROME — In 2004, at the U.S. Olympic Trials in swimming, Hayley McGregory finished third in both the 100m and 200m backstroke races. Only the top two go to the Summer Games. McGregory stayed home.

At the 2008 U.S. Trials, McGregory set a world record in the preliminary rounds of the 100 backstroke. In the finals, however, she finished third. In the 200 finals, she finished third. She did not go to Beijing.

That’s four thirds.

Brutal.

The story of Hayley McGregory had, by the conclusion of the 2008 Trials in Omaha, become something of a gruesome legend in swim circles. Four thirds. Who could handle such a thing? Who could keep going after such disappointment? Why would anyone keep going?

Earlier this month, at the U.S. nationals, McGregory won the 100 back. That victory qualified her for the 2009 U.S. world championship team. The worlds get under way here Sunday.

Finally, Hayley McGregory has made it. “It feels pretty good,” she said the other day with a shy laugh. “I guess after so many letdowns it’s finally going to be nice to prove who I am to the rest of the world.”

Hayley McGregory is, despite all she has already experienced, still just 23. Mark Schubert, the U.S. team’s national coach, said, “She’s still improving. She has a lot of perseverance. She has the desire to prove how good she is.”

The tale of Hayley McGregory’s journey is thus an affirmation of such perseverance, of that desire, of almost other-worldly determination.

But there’s so much more.

It’s also a blossoming love story — to the surprise of some in swimming. With an almost unbelievable twist on third-place finishes.

And a little secret of sorts that makes McGregory’s quest to make these 2009 Worlds and — and, after that, to aim for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team — that much more incredible.

“You know,” said her fiancé, Justin Mortimer, “one of the things many people don’t realize about Hayley is that until 2000 she wasn’t an American citizen. She was born in London.”

Which means Hayley could have made both the 2004 and 2008 Games by swimming for the British team. Her times suggest strongly she could have done so.

But no.

“It’s not disrespect for Britain that she’s not swimming for them. For her, the ultimate goal is to swim at the Olympics for the United States,” Mortimer said, adding a moment later, “Having finished third four times at the Olympic Trials — I think it shows how proud she is to be an American.”

She said, “Not that it never crossed my mind to swim for Britain, but I think that it would be a prouder moment for me and a better culmination for my career if I walked into the Olympic venue wearing the American red, white and blue.”

Haley McGregory is, by her own admission, one of the most complex personalities on the pool deck. She admits to profound insecurities. “I’m always so afraid,” she said. “My biggest fear is the next time I get in the water is the time I’m not going to have it anymore.”

She also said, “I know there are just as many people wanting to see me fail as want to see me succeed.”

Which makes it all the more compelling that her biggest booster is someone who himself intimately knows the trials inherent in finishing third.

At those 2004 Trials in Long Beach, Calif., Mortimer came in third in the 1,500. After taking a year off from virtually everything else to ready for the event, swimming’s version of the mile, a race that takes about 15 minutes to complete, Mortimer finished about a second and a half away from his Olympic dream.

He did not go to Athens.

That was five years ago, of course, and now he says, “I learned a lot more having not made the team than had I made it … it wasn’t so much about the end result. The 15 months leading up to the Olympics — it wasn’t that swim that was the pinnacle. It was the journey … it’s about the journey and the hard work you put in. That sticks with you. You accomplished a whole season, not a swim.

“After all these years, I understand it was about the journey.”

In 2004, McGregory was just 18. The two thirds in Long Beach were a bummer, she said, but she was a high school All-American with college still ahead. There would, she thought, be many more races, many more opportunities.

The real bummer came in Omaha. To not place first or second in the 100, her better event, especially after setting that world record — a mark that Natalie Coughlin would lower almost immediately at the same meet — sent McGregory afterwards to her living-room couch.

Where she stayed, pretty much, for four days.

There wasn’t any shame in finishing behind either Coughlin, who would go on to win gold in the event in Beijing, or Margaret Hoelzer, who would take the bronze in the 100 back at the 2008 Games.

Still — she had finished third.

Again.

“For about four days, I didn’t answer the phone. I actually just sat on my couch feeling extremely sorry for myself,” she said.

The only one who could talk to her was Mortimer. Her parents tried. She said they didn’t understand, couldn’t understand.

He not only could. He did.

“He just told me I was too strong a person to let something as minor as where I finished in a swim race to affect me that way,” she said. “I like to represent myself with a lot of pride and be true to myself.”

She paused. “That wouldn’t have been the case if I had just gone home.”

A few weeks after the 2008 Trials the calendar showed a meet in Minneapolis called the U.S. Open. They decided she would swim there.

“When you have upsets,” McGregory said, “it’s time to find out who you are and about your character.

“I decided I had to try again. I was too close. And I just love it.”

In Minneapolis, McGregory won the 100 back in 59.20.

That was after going 59.11 in the prelims — a time that would have gotten her silver in Beijing.

“It was a pick-me-up,” she says now of that Minneapolis meet, adding, “Swimming at that meet saved my career. If I hadn’t gone to that meet I might have just sat on my couch for the rest of my life.”

Now she’s in Rome, part of the U.S. team — her first long-course worlds team.

Skeptics might point out that Coughlin is essentially taking the year off from competitive swimming.

And that it’s the year after the Games and the pressure is, by comparison, off.

Then again, Hoelzer is still at it. In Indianapolis, Hoelzer finished third. So she won’t be swimming the 100 back for the United States in Rome.

That will be Elizabeth Pelton, who finished second in Indy, and Hayley McGregory.

“Things are starting to come together for her,” Mortimer said of his fiancé. “I have a good feeling she’s going to surprise people the next three years.

“She is capable,” he declared, “of crushing, really blowing away, the world record.”

She said, “Just getting over the obstacle of being there — that has definitely been my biggest obstacle.

“I know now I’m good enough to be on the world team. I can win. I don’t have to just come in third.

“If you believe in yourself, you should never let anyone tell you you’re not good enough. That happens — people tell you you’re not good enough. But you can’t let that get in your mind, that belief in what they say instead of what you believe in your heart.”

That’s what she and Justin talk about now on the couch. And someday, a long time from now, when the two of them have been Mr. and Mrs. Mortimer for as long as it takes to have kids of their own and those kids have their own kids and those grandkids say, ‘Grandma, tell us about yourself’ — she plans to tell them about the summer of 2009 in Rome and, if the story goes to the plan now, the Olympics in London in 2012:

“I’m going to tell them what a great time I had doing all this and how it was pretty amazing,” Hayley McGregory said.

“I was hyped up and fell short of what I was supposed to do — and how fun it has been, the places I’ve gotten to go, all the people I’ve met who are so great.”

She paused, thinking for just a moment about four thirds, then saying, “Yeah, it’s hard. But it never outweighs the good stuff.”