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A lot can change in four years

This, the final week of the year, is a time of reflection for many. Not coincidentally, this column follows the trend. It's about perspective and overcoming adversity, and it's about remembering that tough times you survive might just be preparation for tougher times to come.

It's specifically about Olympic swimmer Eric Shanteau. But we should all be able to learn something from his story. He missed the Olympics four years ago, a gut-wrenching time in his life, but nothing compared to what he'd go through this past year, when he qualified for the Beijing games and cancer was his focus instead of a narrow defeat.

A lot can happen in four months, yet alone four years. Four years ago I was sports editor of this paper and wrote the following column:

July 20, 2004

As you're reading this, sit the section down and pick it up again.

Now you know how close Eric Shanteau came to making the Olympic swimming team. And now you know why a week after placing third in the 200 individual medley at the Olympic trials the Parkview grad is still none too thrilled about it.

Not that he ever will be.

"It's one of those things where if you saw me it was 'just stay away from me,'" Shanteau said of his reaction after missing an Olympic berth by one spot and .34 seconds.

"Now you wouldn't be able to tell I was thinking about it. But it's still on my mind constantly and it will be until the Olympics are over."

The Olympics don't end until late August, but Shanteau's thoughts of what could have been will last much longer. In a pair of races where first or second was needed to advance, the Auburn swimmer came up with a pair of thirds.

He missed qualifying in the 400 IM by just under a second, which only set the stage for the heartbreak he endured in the 200 IM. In that race he was in second until the final six meters before being edged out at the wall, .34 seconds short of his Olympic dream.

You can't really do anything in that amount of time, except see the biggest goal of your life go up in smoke.

"The margin for error is real small," Shanteau said. "A few slip-ups and that happens.

"It can come down to one turn, it can come down to two strokes or it can come down to two meters. I was in (second place) six meters from the finish and I was just dead tired and had given all I had to give. And that's when he got me."

"He" is Ryan Lochte, who was second with a time of 1 minute, 59.41 seconds. Shanteau's time was 1:59.75. It's a .34 differential that might as well be an eternity, the time it may take to get over the sting.

"I was furious," Shanteau said. "I couldn't believe it happened."

Shanteau's time in the 200 IM is the fourth best in the world this year. That's a lofty ranking, but it offers little solace or a trip to Athens, Greece.

All the best race of Shanteau's life has done is make him mad. People at the trials - some respected coaches - told Shanteau it was good, that he needed to harness that anger and use it as a driving force toward the 2008 Games.

But not right this minute, his Auburn coach said. David Marsh told Shanteau to take it easy, to stay out of the pool for a while and enjoy himself. So he's visiting friends, riding his mountain bike and wake boarding, riding the water instead of immersing himself in it.

The anger will continue subsiding and the 20-year-old will get back in the pool. And when he does he should think about Texas' Brendan Hansen, who set world records in the 100 and 200 breaststroke at this year's trials.

After all, four years ago Hansen was third in both races.

···

Four years later Shanteau is both an Olympian and a cancer survivor. The defeat he suffered four years earlier drove him to be one and helped him handle the other.

What he thought was a major blow in his life paled to what came later. But he has handled that test admirably. Four years ago he could only think about what he had lost, now he's thankful for what he has gained.

That defeat is part of who he is, just like his cancer. It is part of his journey.

Yes, a lot can change in four years. Or 12 months.

Just something to remember as we head into 2009.

Todd Cline can be reached via e-mail at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Tuesdays.