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A swimmer, a coach and two crushed Olympic dreams (Part II)

Continued from Part I

La Tourette didn’t feel great in the water at the 2012 Olympic Trials.

On the first day of the Trials, La Tourette swam in the preliminary session of the 400-meter freestyle. He finished 10th with a time 1.5 seconds slower than his personal record and failed to qualify for the finals despite coming into the meet seeded fifth. More disconcerting was the fact that in the days leading up to the 1,500-meter — La Tourette’s signature event — the swimmer “felt really off” and wasn’t hitting any of his times that he usually did during practice.

And to make the meet even more mentally taxing for La Tourette, the finals of the 1,500 was the last event on the last day of the eight-day Trials.

“At Trials, there’s that level of anxiety of waiting and waiting, and you’re seeing all these other swims,” La Tourette said. “The adrenaline is there every day even if you’re not swimming, and that’s exhausting.”

Chad La Tourette was puzzled by the late changes to his training heading into the 2012 Olympic Trials. (CREDIT)

Chad La Tourette was puzzled by the late changes to his training heading into the 2012 Olympic Trials. (Richard C. Erstad/StanfordPhoto.com)

Despite being the top seed, La Tourette finished sixth in the preliminary session with a time that was much slower than he expected for the amount of effort he had put into the race. Still, La Tourette placed in the top eight, which meant that he qualified for the finals, and even though he was worried about his slower times and not feeling great in the water, he did his best to put those concerns out of his head.

“You can’t read into the fact that you didn’t feel great in the prelims,” La Tourette said. “You can’t think about it really at all because one, you don’t know how you’re going to perform the next day, and two, it doesn’t matter how you feel the next day because you’re going to have to race all out.

“Before the finals, it seemed like he was saying, ‘Hey, I’m ready. This is it. I’m not nervous. I’ve had four years of experience with big races.’” Rose added. “He seemed so much more assured and mature in 2012 than in 2008. He was an experienced swimmer who was very much in control.”

La Tourette took control of the finals race from the get-go. He took the race out just as he and Rose had planned it, and by the 400-meter mark, La Tourette had a three-second lead over the rest of the field. At the 800 mark, he was almost a full four seconds ahead of his closest competitor.

But by the time La Tourette reached the 1,000 mark, a feeling of tiredness — an alien feeling that he had never experienced in his swimming career — began to set in.

“I felt unnaturally gassed, just strange and not characteristic of how I usually feel,” La Tourette said. “At that point you’re definitely starting to get tired, but you’re usually not totally gassed … There was a really strange sensation in my arm, a sense of lactate that I never deal with in the 1,500.”

“That was the only race in his life where he couldn’t stick to his plan and have it come out to the best of his ability,” Rose said.

La Tourette held on to his lead for 250 more meters, but by the time he flipped at the 1,300, he dropped to third behind Andrew Gemmell and Connor Jaeger. Even during the race, La Tourette was able to see Gemmell and Jaeger overtake him with only 200 meters left.

“I tried to continue to swim my own race, but at that point it really wasn’t my own race anymore because it didn’t feel like how it usually feels,” La Tourette said. “When I felt myself losing ground and no prospect for kicking it at the end, that’s when [I felt] that something was wrong.”

The swimmer who had never backed down from a race in his life was starting to throw in the towel. La Tourette’s ability to control his own race eluded him when he needed it the most.

“I was just about ready to throw up,” said Rose, who from the pool deck had watched his swimmer painfully falter. “I still am.”

La Tourette knew he had finished third before he even touched the wall. Four years after placing third at the 2008 Trials, he faced the same nightmare once again. But this time, he felt that someone else was responsible for the awful result.

“I was more pissed at my coach than at myself,” La Tourette said.

Rose also happened to be the first person La Tourette talked to after the race.

“You can’t blame yourself,” the coach tells his swimmer.

La Tourette is thinking, “Well no shit. I trained my ass off for this and that’s all you have to say? That ‘you can’t blame yourself’? Are you feeling that there’s a possibility that your perspective on the necessary preparation and what we did leading up to this could have been incorrect?”

“He was like a beaten puppy,” Rose said. “There was nothing anybody could say to anybody. We just stared at each other.”

When asked if he felt that La Tourette was upset with him after the race, Rose replied, “I still do. I can understand it. Obviously I did something wrong, and I just wish I know what I did wrong.”

***

In the first three months after the 2012 Trials, Rose tried to reach out to La Tourette, but the coach said his swimmer rebuffed him. Rose understood that he needed to give La Tourette his space.

La Tourette never had a “lowest moment,” but he had trouble sleeping most nights as his mind replayed the disastrous Trials over and over.

“I remember being so pissed when I put my head down to sleep at night, because that’s the quietest moment, when you’re alone with your thoughts,” La Tourette said. “You’re mad yourself, you’re mad at other people. You wish things had gone differently.”

La Tourette had plenty of support, including the family members who had always been able to keep his swimming in perspective. Still, no matter how much his family or friends consoled him, time was the only healer that could help La Tourette recover from the disappointment.

“People say, ‘Look how far you came. Look at all the things you can hold up and be proud of.’ It’s true, but at the same time those people don’t know how it feels, and they don’t know what it feels like to be that close to something. They just have no idea,” La Tourette said. “A lot of people don’t appreciate the amount of pressure that’s put on you and your own level of expectations.”

“I don’t think you can ever get into an athlete’s shoes,” added Schavone, who has a Ph.D. in sports psychology from Stanford.

But the aftermath wasn’t easy for the coach, either.

Rose is one of the most highly acclaimed swimming coaches in the world and has coached the sport for 45 years. Because of how long he has been involved in swimming, Rose has coached more third-place finishers at the Olympic Trials than any other coach in the history of swimming — he jokingly calls himself “the king of third place” — to the extent where most of those third-place finishes don’t bother him at all.

La Tourette’s third-place finish was different, though.

“Chad’s race in 2012 bothered me more than any other race in my career,” Rose said. “I’m still upset about it to this day.”

***

La Tourette was brave enough to get back into the pool after the 2012 Trials.

Chad La Tourette has moved on to life after swimming. (Dani Vernon/Stanfordphoto.com)

Chad La Tourette has moved on to life after swimming, working at Cleantech Group. (Dani Vernon/Stanfordphoto.com)

Because he had taken time off from school to train for the Trials, La Tourette went back to Stanford to finish his bachelor’s degree in Earth Systems. La Tourette was lucky enough to receive an athlete’s fund to continue training with the Stanford pro team, but by then, he had already started focusing on life outside of swimming, such as taking a heavier course load and interning at Cleantech Group.

Even with the more laid-back atmosphere, it wasn’t until seven or eight months after the Trials before La Tourette started enjoying swimming again — and even then, it was different from how things were before the Trials.

“I didn’t realize how I wasn’t over it until we started going to meets again,” he said. “It brought back a lot of bad memories for me … There was still always a level of discomfort going back to competition.”

La Tourette finished fourth in the 1,500 at the 2013 U.S. World Championship Trials in June and failed to make the U.S. team. But unlike what happened after the 2012 Trials, he didn’t feel any disappointment at all. Knowing that it would be the last race of his swimming career, La Tourette got the closure he needed.

“That summer was just an opportunity for me to get up and say you can overcome what happened in 2012, to pull yourself together and do something that you’re proud of,” La Tourette said. “Even if it’s not your best time or you didn’t achieve what you achieved in the past, you can still say that you achieved something new.”

La Tourette and Rose have talked since the 2012 Trials, though their relationship isn’t back to the way it was before 2012.

“I’m over it emotionally, but I still say that I put out the effort that was expected of me and honestly a lot of things outside of my realm of control should have been changed,” La Tourette said. “But at this point it’s stupid to point fingers because one, it’s a sport, and two, it’s over … Ten years down the road, I’m not going to hold a grudge against myself or him.”

“I’m very proud of Chad,” Rose said. “I love Chad like my son.”

Currently, La Tourette is an account manager at Cleantech Group. He stays fit by lifting weights, hiking and playing other sports, but not swimming — he doesn’t even have access to a pool. No longer spending most of his day soaked in chlorine, he’s taken the time to look back at his career with perspective.

Now, when people tell him that he should be proud of all his swimming accomplishments, he reacts very differently from how he would have after the 2012 Trials.

“I do hold [my accomplishments] up, and I do try to be as proud of them as I can,” La Tourette said. “That’s part of life: You’re going to fail at things and you’re going to come up short. And there’s nothing you can really do besides learn how to adapt and move on.”

Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About George Chen

George Chen is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily who writes football, football and more football. Previously he worked at The Daily as the President and Editor in Chief, Executive Editor, Managing Editor of Sports, the football beat reporter and a sports desk editor. George also co-authored The Daily's recent book documenting the rise of Stanford football, "Rags to Roses." He is a senior from Painted Post, NY majoring in Biology. To contact him, please email at gchen15@stanford.edu.