Consider for a moment two possible scenarios. In one, you are given a 40% chance to win a million dollars. In another, you receive a million up front, but then are forced into a 40% shot to lose it. On a gut level, the first scenario is more appealing even though your odds at a million are worse. It's a scenario that has a lot to do with the psychology of swimming.
Every swimmer has a tipping point where they are less excited about what they could possibly accomplish and more worried about losing what they've already accomplished. The most famous example at this meet is Michael Phelps, who four years ago sat on the biggest pile of swimming accomplishment ever won. Since then he's been mostly trying not to lose it rather than beat it. It took a lot of ambition to gamble for more than anyone had won before- everyone has their limits.
Yet this phenomenon takes place on all scales and isn't always so predictable. One could forgive Allison Schmitt for growing defensive since her breakout in 2008, and yet she seems more assertive than ever. Youth definitely helps- it is unlikely that the likes of Missy Franklin or Rachel Bootsma think they have anything to lose. Meanwhile, Natalie Coughlin was evidence that even a champion's track record and the best coach in the world aren't sure odds for an Olympic spot.
If you had no knowledge of swimmers and were simply picking a squad from the lineup, chances are you would choose the impossibly tall and athletic Matt Grevers. Somehow despite his advantage, Grevers has made his 2nd place finish and world best victory seem less than likely.
Perhaps no swimmer has written the "nothing to lose" narrative better than the yet to swim Dara Torres. She has more money to throw at professional stretchers than most coaches salaries and unmatched talent. She remains paradoxically an underdog, and it's hard to remember when she wasn't. Somehow, the years haven't made her any less willing to take irrational risks than competitors a generation younger. Just add it to the list of things she can teach them: how to gamble in the pool.
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