USA Swimming, along with the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), helps to fund elite swimmers' training and living expenses. This stipend is provided for those swimmers that swim to the the top two places in the country at one selected swim meet per year (typically a big qualifying meet like the Olympic trials and World Championship trials). This is a great deal... when you are in the top two, that is.
Mark, since 2004, has been in the top two consistently (with the exception of one year), meaning that he has received this stipend.
"Just how much is this stipend?" you ask. Mark reminds me that at one time it was enough (barely-in my spoiled opinion) for him to survive off of when he was a young early-twenty-something with no wife, no baby, no dog and when he was perfectly happy eating spaghetti for every meal. Is it enough to live off of now? No. But it is a good start and we are grateful for it.
There was one year, however, that Mark did not swim to a top two finish at Nationals. In 2006, about three weeks after he proposed to me, Mark swam at Nationals. The entire summer had been a little bit of a struggle. He would come home from practice and be frustrated with his performance, with his workouts, with his training in general. I remember he would say things like, "as soon as I make it through this summer, I am going to make a change." This, as we would come to learn, was the kiss of death, a red flag, a big fat WARNING-something was off.
I remember getting a call from Mark in the evening after he was slated to swim in the finals of the 100 meter breaststroke (his specialty and the event in which he had placed fourth individually at the Olympic games just two years earlier) at nationals. I answered the phone, "Hey... how'd you do?" When it was silent, I knew that his answer was not going to be the answer that I had come to get used to. "Fourth." he said. Oh my God. My heart broke for him. I remember feeling guilty that he had just given me a diamond ring and now he was going to struggle for the rest of the year without stipend (and at this time he had not yet begun his busy work schedule--I will fill you in on what this means soon... I promise). Talk about the guilt of all guilt.
What is worse than getting fourth place when only the top two receive funding? Swimming a time that still held one of the top two times in the country in the prelims and then getting fourth. What does this mean? Mark had the second fastest time in the country in 2006, but because he swam that time in the prelims at nationals, rather than in the finals, another swimmer (who ultimately swam slower than Mark) was considered to be one of the top two swimmers in the country and was going to receive funding--Mark would receive no funding. Are we bitter? Is this unfair? Absolutely not. It is fair. This is athletics. You have to perform when it is time to perform. Unfortunately sometimes people get third... or fourth. Sometimes you get touched out. But, when it is your livelihood, when it is what supports your family, it hurts a little. So, what can you do about it?
Again, can you see why I bite my finger nails?
At the beginning of each summer (right about now) I start getting a little anxious. I have absolute confidence in Mark, in Mark's hard work, in Mark's talents and his coaches... but, I can't help but be a little shaky when it come to stipend-talk. Honestly, it makes my stomach churn (I could blow chunks at any moment if I think about it too long).
What is my role in this aspect of Mark's career? My role is to sit in the stands, check results, cheer, travel, pace, and bite my finger nails. All joking aside, my job is to be confident in Mark, have faith in Mark and be supportive of Mark... all else will fall into place (hopefully the top two).