In the eyes of some coaches and competitors, Kristine Quance is a true champion - not because she won a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics - but because of the medals she didn't win.
Kristine is a 20-year-old junior and honor student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and a member of the USC ward's Primary presidency in the Los Angeles, California Stake.Prior to the Olympics, she had distinguished herself as one of the fastest female swimmers in the world in the 400-meter individual medley. She was also considered one of the United States' best hopes for a gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke.
But instead of leading the pack in the final qualifying heat of the U.S. Olympic trials last March, she sat, according to her mother, on the sidelines in tears.
When the dust cleared, Kristine had failed to qualify in the Olympic trials in her best events, 400-meter individual medley and 200-meter breaststroke, but did qualify in her worst events, the 200-meter individual medley and the 100-meter breaststroke.
In one of the events in which she didn't qualify, the 400-meter individual medley, she was disqualified for a violation so rare that she didn't even know the rule existed. Her mother, Sandy, said coaches, teammates and parents were stunned when she was stripped of a victory she had won by eight seconds over her challenger.
This was not the first disappointment that had derailed Kristine on her Olympic quest. In 1992, at age 17 when she was first considered an Olympic contender, she suffered mononucleosis which left her too weak to compete at full strength. Later, major rotator-cuff problems in her shoulder slowed her preparation.
As she sat that night at the trials, watching others compete in her race, she felt her Olympic dreams fading as history seemed to repeat itself.
The disqualification centered around a controversial turn made as she moved from the backstroke to the breaststroke.
A review of the tape showed that Kristine was sideways as she propelled herself off the pool wall. The disqualification caught the attention of the media, including Sports Illustrated which quoted Richard Quick of Stanford University, who would coach the U.S. women swimmers at the Olympic games:
"There's such a thing in basketball as the no-call," he said. "This was the perfect place for a no-call. What happened here very well could cost us a medal."
Kristine and her parents considered appealing the decision in the courts, but after a weekend remembering how she felt when she didn't make the team, she decided that it wasn't right to bump someone else who had already been promised a position on the team.
Since she wasn't able to compete in her strongest events, she tried to qualify in two weaker events at the Olympic trials, namely, the 200-meter individual medley and the 100-meter breaststroke.
"We never thought, in our wildest dreams, that she would qualify," said Kristine's mother following the 200-meter individual medley victory. "She gave it all she had and proved she was a champion. We immediately ran downstairs and phoned everyone we knew."
The first two days of the Olympic trials had turned Kristine's swimming world upside down. After she had failed in one of her strongest races and qualified in a weaker one, the cycle repeated itself two days later. Kristine was expected to medal in the 200-meter breaststroke, but when she missed qualifying by .13 of a second, "There were no words to comfort her," said her mother.
It was a moment of self-introspection, described her mother. At this point, she had failed in her two strongest races, but qualified in her worst.
This personal battle was described as the embodiment of the U.S. Olympic trials by Sports Illustrated, which highlighted Kristine's struggle, saying, "She seemed to be a one-woman Broadway show encompassing all the emotions in the women's trials."
Kristine qualified the next day for the 200-meter individual medley by slicing two seconds off her best time. "She finished a fingernail's length behind the winner," said her mother.
Two weeks later, with the emotional roller coaster of the Olympic trials completed, Kristine competed in the NCAA Championship in Ann Arbor, Mich., where she won the 400-meter individual medley, the 200-meter breaststroke and the 200-meter individual medley.
The crowning moment of the championships came when she was named the NCAA Female Swimmer of the Year.
"In six years of international swimming and being world-ranked, Kristine had never swam the 100-meter breaststroke or the 200-meter individual medley," said Sister Quance. "Now she had to change years of training."
But time to prepare for the Olympics was too short and the changes were too great. "My best times [in her strongest events] would have won two gold medals," Kristine said. As it turned out, she placed ninth in the 200-meter individual medley and 19th in the 100-meter breaststroke.
Kristine, however, did earn a gold medal when she was selected to swim a leg on the 4x100 medley relay qualifying team. A second team later swam to win the medal, but all eight members received gold medals when the medal team took first place.
At one point during the Olympics when Kristine was sitting alone, a swimming coach from Australia walked over and explained how he had been watching her.
"Don't doubt yourself," he said. "We know you were a gold medal contender in the 400-individual medley." He then mentioned how his swimmers felt they had a better chance of winning without her.
A competitor from South Africa, who won the 100-breaststroke and the 200-meter individual medley and swam for the University of Nebraska, said Kristine was the only one she feared at the NCAA championships.
She's always been a true champion, said her USC coach Mark Schubert, who praised her for returning poise in the face of injustice.