Ian Thorpe ducked his head back under the water, trying to fathom how he'd let his best chance of qualifying for the London Olympics slip without a trademark surge to the finish.
It was a feeling of disappointment of a magnitude The Thorpedo had never experienced. The capacity 3,000-strong crowd — all there to see the five-time Olympic champion continue his comeback from retirement by sealing an spot on the Australian team in 200-meter freestyle — was stunned into silence.
"The fairytale has turned into a nightmare," Thorpe said when confronted by a TV camera crew on the pool deck moments after stepping out of the water on Friday night.
It took more than an hour for him to face a news conference. His eyes were red, although he said there'd been no tears.
"But I was lying on the massage table and going 'Yeah, it would be really easy to cry now,'" he admitted. "The more time I've had to digest, the more disappointed I am.
"I guess I've never felt like this after a race. Just utterly gutted and kind of left speechless by a performance. And asking all of the questions, you know, why did this happen? Why is this going on?"
Ryan Napoleon, swimming in the lane beside Thorpe, led the qualifiers into Saturday's final in 1 minute, 47.51 seconds. Thomas Fraser-Holmes won the previous semifinal and was second-fastest overall in 1:47.57 — still a long way behind Thorpe's personal best of 1:44.06, the old world record.
Thorpe was last to get out of the pool after his surprisingly slow time of 1:49.91 ranked him 12th of 16 semifinalists. That put untold pressure on him because he has to earn a spot on the Australian team via the 100 freestyle. It's never been his strongest event, and Australia team coach Leigh Nugent conceded the 29-year-old Thorpe isn't anatomically suited to the two-lap sprint.
"Look ... I have the 100 now. I have to get myself back up," he said. "It's fine to be disappointed. There's a little bit of time to allow myself to do that tonight. Tomorrow, when I get back up, I have a competition to finish now. And a competition where I have to perform well. I still want my spot on this team."
The heats in the 100 start Sunday.
Thorpe's comeback from retirement captured the imagination of the Australian sports public, with his buildup to the trials generating saturation media coverage. It was all focussed on him succeeding in the 200 freestyle — he was the reigning Olympic 200 and 400 freestyle champion when he retired in 2006.
After a powerful heat swim in the morning heats — his fastest since returning to competition — critics and coaches alike were convinced he'd at least reach the 200 final. Instead, Thorpe struggled to keep up. The hulking frame, the size-17 feet that propelled him to five Olympic and 11 world championship gold medals and 13 individual world records just didn't help him this time.
"Tonight ... I allowed myself to be a little bit slower the second 50, to really go on the third 50. Frankly, when I went to do it, I just didn't have the pickup that I wanted there," he said. "I can look at technical things for why that was the case. For me, it was a pretty ordinary swim."
He had to recall memories of seeing other athletes deal with setbacks to have any idea how to cope with this one.
"I've been very fortunate that throughout my career this has been a very rare thing for me. I haven't had to deal with this kind of disappointment," he said. "You see at the national championships, a lot of people have to deal with this at the start of the competition and then be able to prosper later. You're constantly aware of that. Tomorrow I'll, as best I can, try and let go of what happened and get ready for the 100."
The only thing close to his disappointment Friday was when he was disqualified for a false start in the 400 freestyle in the trials for the 2004 Athens Olympics. He was handed an Olympic spot for the 200 when a teammate withdrew, and he won the title in Athens.
He needs to place first or second to earn an individual spot on the Australian squad, or finish in the top six to even be considered as a relay swimmer.
A top-two finish is very long odds — he'll be up against world champion James Magnussen and former sprint world record holder Eamon Sullivan.
"I'll go for broke," he said.
Another of Australia's comeback swimmers narrowly missed out in her first bid for spot on the London squad, with reigning Olympic champion Libby Trickett placing third in the 100 butterfly final behind world championship silver medalist Alicia Coutts (57.59) and Jess Schipper (57.88).
Triple Olympic gold medalist Trickett is now targeting the 100 freestyle for a spot on the squad for London 2012.
Christian Sprenger won the 100 breaststroke in 59.91 seconds, the fastest time in the world this year, to edge world-record holder Brenton Rickard into second place in 1:00.13. In other finals, Kylie Palmer set an Australian record to win the women's 400 freestyle in 4:03.40.