Article Thumbnail

I Lost My Olympic Dream by a Fraction of a Second

What Patrick Quinn learned from an extremely near miss

If tenacity were an Olympic sport, none of what follows would be here. Because on that count, Patrick Quinn is an Olympian. Few people, in fact, have been so dogged about making the U.S. Winter Olympic Team. To wit, Quinn attempted to do so three different times in two different sports (speed skating and luge) over nearly 10 years, at an age when most Olympians are retiring. He came closest just before the 2006 Games in Turin — only to fall a fraction of a second short. (He fell short the two other times as well, though by a much less painful margin.) Today, he stays as close to the Games as a 50-year-old can, representing a number of Olympians as their agent. In this week of heartbreak, he’s the last in our Near Miss series, where we hear from three men who came thisclose to accomplishing their dreams only to fall agonizingly short, but lived to tell the tale.

I went to the ‘98 and ‘02 Olympic Trials for speed skating. My best event was the 10,000 meters. The top two or three guys made the team. I finished fifth or sixth — closer to the top than the middle, but not close enough.

Frankly, I was good at the 10,000 meters because I was willing to suffer more than most. There were plenty of skaters who were better than I was, but they weren’t willing to kill themselves for 15 minutes. The 10,000 meters is a brutal, brutal race. In a lot of ways, I was hoping to make the team by attrition. Like, “Okay, if you’re not willing to hurt as much as I am — even if you’re more talented than me — I’m going to beat you.”

So yeah, I was optimistic I might get there in speed skating, but admittedly, it was a bit of a Hail Mary.

I skated for another year after the ‘02 Trials. I was getting older, and it was becoming more difficult. My wife also had just had a baby. It made me start to think: “Do I really want to put another four years into this?”

That’s also when I tried luge for the first time. I was living in Salt Lake City back then, and they had opened a track for the 2002 Winter Games, which Salt Lake City hosted. I was like, “Gosh, this thing is in my backyard…”

I decided that if I had one last shot at the Olympics, it should be in luge. Things went very quickly from there.

One of the reasons I believe I got good at luge so fast is because I started so late — ridiculously, inconceivably late. I was 36 at the time. Maturity, however, came with a calmness. I excelled at not letting small mistakes magnify. When something went wrong, I didn’t overcompensate, which can only make the problem worse. Some of that is my natural temperament, but a lot of it is all the experience I brought to the table as a competitor.

A heightened sense of focus is important in luge, too. After all, you’re going anywhere from 70 to 90 miles per hour. Any mistake is going to happen fast and really, really hurt. And inevitably, something goes wrong on almost every run. A lot of luge then is making adjustments without panicking.

It’s just a rocket ride.

Here’s how much older I was than everyone else: When I was in college, I went to a summer tryout for the U.S. Luge Team. Scratch that — I wouldn’t even call it a tryout. It was more like a physical evaluation looking for athletic people to put into the pipeline of the sport. Either way, I killed it. I think I won every single event. I remember one of the coaches coming up to me afterward and saying, “You did great! Unfortunately, you’re too old.” At most, I was 20 at the time.

The way you make the Olympic Team in luge is cumulative based on the number of competitions. In other words, it’s not a one-day event. That season we were among three teams competing for essentially two spots. And after one team qualified, it was down to one spot for two of us. The other remaining team had never beaten us until we got to Italy and were on the luge track for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. We wound up having a bad crash during a training run — my teammate’s head slapped back and cracked my facemask in half. It was more than enough to put him in the hospital and keep us from competing.

That’s the only competition in which this other team placed higher than us, and that’s because we weren’t even in it.

Ultimately, USA Luge officials determined there should be a one-day, one-run, winner-take-all race-off. Our sled went first, and we had a great run, an absolutely great run. Then they go — and have the run of their lives.

They beat us by one-tenth of a second. And that was that. It was over.

It was devastating, just devastating. I couldn’t believe it. A whole lifetime of effort was lost in one-tenth of a second. I can’t even begin to tell you how all-consuming that is.

Immediately after we lost, we went back to the top of the track to get our warm-up suits and change. When we got done, the only people left were me, my teammate and the two guys who beat us. We took a car together back down the mountain. I mean, talk about unbelievably awkward. But I remember saying to the other two guys, “Listen, congratulations. This is your moment. Don’t think you can’t enjoy it because we’re here. In fact, drink it in because you may never get it again.”

Patrick Quinn with his daughter

The guys who beat us were around 18 — or roughly half my age. Later on that night, one of their dads came up to me and said that his son had told him what I said in the car. He thanked me for it, actually.

Still, the next couple of days were some of the worst of my life. In hindsight, there are bigger problems in the world. But in the moment, that was what my life was all about, and I didn’t get it.

That was my last competition. I think that was even the last time I was on a sled.

I’d be lying if I said I’ve put it all behind me — even now, 11 years later. I’m not a bitter guy; it doesn’t eat away at me. But yeah, I think about it in a lot of different ways. When I see an athlete miss something by a fraction of a second, I can empathize with them in a way that maybe a lot of other people can’t. And when I hear an athlete bitch and moan about whatever, I think to myself, You have no clue how privileged you are to be where you are.

A lot of my clients seem to appreciate the fact that I’ve been in the trenches and understand the demands on them and understand the pressures of competition. That’s not to say that somebody who hasn’t competed can’t, too. But I have unequivocally walked in very similar shoes to most of my clients.

Time heals everything, but how do you move past it? For me, it happened by focusing on gratitude. When you take the time to have a sense of gratitude, it helps bring a change in perspective. In my case, even though I didn’t get to the Olympics, I got to travel the world and have this cool job in my thirties when I probably should’ve been sitting in a cubicle somewhere.

It, of course, isn’t an overnight thing. It’s a progression that continues to happen, evolving over days, weeks, months and years. Now, though, I think of it not as a major setback but as being pivotal in creating the business I own and that puts food in my family’s mouths. And that’s an awesome thing.

—As told to Josh Schollmeyer