Eric Shanteau's trips to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials always seem to have an interesting story.
The former Parkview standout's first trials came in 2000 when he was just 16. Swimming alongside the country's top athletes of the era, the teenager surprised fans with 10th- and 11th-place finishes in the individual medley races.
Four years later, the story was heartbreak. He finished third in the 2004 trials in both IM races (the top two earn Olympic spots) by less than a second. In the 200-meter IM, he finished behind the top Americans, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Lochte took second in the 200 IM in 1:59.41 and Shanteau was just behind at 1:59.75.
Avenging that ultra-close loss expected to be the lasting memory of Shanteau's 2008 trials, at least until a bigger theme emerged. Diagnosed with testicular cancer the week before qualifying, he still managed to earn his first Olympic berth with a runner-up finish in the 200 breaststroke, then he famously delayed his cancer treatments until after the Olympics.
What story is ahead for Shanteau at this year's trials? Maybe his best one ever.
Cancer-free and swimming the fastest times of his career, the 28-year-old enters Olympic Trials, which begin Monday in Omaha, Neb., in the unfamiliar role as a favorite to make the Olympic team. He is the current American record holder in both of his events, the 100 breast (58.96) and the 200 breast (2:07.42).
"That is different, but in my mind I don't think like that," Shanteau said of the favorite's role. "I haven't thought about (being the favorite) at all. ... People can call me the favorite, but that's just not really my view. I just focus on my lane, on my race."
Without cancer on his mind, Shanteau is obviously in a better mindset this summer than he was in 2008. He also is a more seasoned racer, one who knows Olympic Trials well entering his fourth trip to the pressure-packed meet.
"Without even bringing (cancer) up, I'm four years older and I'm more mature as a person and as a competitor," said Shanteau, who married former Auburn teammate Jeri Moss last year. "I have a better perspective on competition and on Olympic Trials. It's all about keeping it in perspective (at Trials). You really have to find that middle ground between falling asleep and crazy adrenaline. You find that five and stay there as much as possible. That is a challenge, especially the night before and two hours before a big race."
Shanteau notched both of his American records not too long after cancer treatment. In the summer of 2009, he toppled the 100 and 200 breast marks and also was on a world-record 400 medley relay that swam 3:27.28 at the World Championships. The foursome, which featured Michael Phelps, still holds that world record.
Before he can think about Olympic relays, Shanteau has to get to London.
His first shot individually begins Monday with morning preliminaries and evening semifinals in the 100 breast. The 100 breast finals are Tuesday evening.
He is seeded fourth in that race on the meet's psyche sheet, but he's the clear favorite in his other race, the 200 breast. Shanteau's qualifying mark is a half-second faster than the No. 2 seed, Brendan Hansen, the top seed in the 100 breast. Shanteau's American record of 2:07.42 is well below Hansen's Olympic Trials record of 2:09.04.
The 200 breast prelims and semifinals are June 28, followed by the finals June 29.
"The 200 is definitely my stronger event, but I'm looking forward to both," said Shanteau, who has spent more than a year training with USC coach Dave Salo and training alongside the world's No. 1 breaststroker, Japan's Kosuke Kitajima.
Four years ago, Shanteau didn't see himself at this point.
He repeatedly talked of retiring after the 2008 Olympics. He finally reached the Games that year, but a disappointing 10th-place finish and a renewed spirit after beating cancer changed his outlook.
Now he's on track a huge summer, starting with Trials next week.
"So many times in different interviews (in 2008) I said, 'This is it for me. I'm retiring after this Olympics,'" Shanteau said. "But with the treatment for cancer, I still felt like I didn't reach my potential. I achieved my goal of making the Olympics, but dealing with the cancer I felt I didn't reach my potential on the biggest stage. I felt like I had some unfinished business."