Duel in the Pool a real thriller

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Jessica Hardy contributed to Team USA’s victory by finishing first in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke.

Sudden death. There’s nothing quite as exciting (and high pressure) in the world of sports. That is what Team USA faced during the final minutes of this year’s Duel in the Pool meet against the European all-stars. The event pairs male and female swimmers from the U.S. against the top competitors in Europe, packing 30 races into two fast-paced days. It’s structured much like a college dual meet, meaning there are more events, less recovery time and an emphasis on the team victory over individual results.

I’ve competed five of the six years that the event has been held, and we had never come close to a tie [with the U.S. winning each time]. This time around, when we all realized we were neck and neck at 131 points each, none of us knew the rules regarding what happened next. Then we were told the winner would be decided by one final race -- a 200-meter mixed medley relay. The coaches immediately started scrambling to decide on the best swimmers for that event. Further complicating things, many of us had already warmed down, thinking we were done for the day. Eugene Godsoe, Kevin Cordes, Claire Donahue and Simone Manuel would end up with the whole competition -- and our bragging rights -- riding on their shoulders. No pressure!

As they took to the blocks, the rest of us prepared ourselves to do some serious cheering. Duel in the Pool was held in Glasgow, Scotland, this year, so we had a decidedly pro-European crowd on our hands. If we weren’t encouraging our teammates, no one was. Of course, I’m now married to a European (Swiss swimmer Dominik Meichtry), so that made for a fun rivalry as well. He tends to pull the neutral “I’m Swiss” card whenever he wants to avoid taking sides. Smart man.

I’ve probably never cheered harder than I did during the one minute and 31 seconds of that final race. When Simone clinched the win on her anchor leg by two tenths of a second, there was complete mayhem poolside. We were all screaming, jumping and throwing our towels in the air. Simone was crying, our coaches were crying -- it was an unforgettable moment. It may not have been the most important event of my career, but I can honestly say that it was the most exciting. And, in case you were wondering, my voice still hasn’t recovered.

The fact that we were behind by 23 points after the first three events on that final day made the victory even sweeter. We came out flat, but rallied as a team, even in a hostile environment. After the win, we celebrated at a beautiful dinner for both teams at Glasgow’s city hall.

As great as the competition was in a team sense, I felt encouraged by my individual results as well. My preparation over the past few months has been unconventional, to say the least. I had a procedure on my shoulder to repair a torn biceps tendon, got married, went on a long honeymoon and participated in an international charity event. I ended up finishing first in the 100 breaststroke and last in the 50 free. Given my still-recovering shoulder, I was pleasantly surprised with both times.

After our team celebration, it was back to the States in time to wrap some Christmas presents and spend time with friends. I’ll start training again on Jan. 1 to prepare for summer competition. Though this is the one year out of four where we don’t have the Olympics or the world championships to look forward to, this summer’s results will determine next year’s roster for worlds. There’s always some form of pressure, so the trick is to stay focused on the present.

For now, I’m going to enjoy the holidays and try to get my voice back. I wish the same for you (the holidays part, at least). Make sure those resolutions for 2014 start you off on the right foot!