One Step from the Podium

It is sarcastically called “The Fourth-Place Finisher Club,” but for the world’s best athletes, finishing without a medal can lead to years of devastation.

After+his+second+fourth-place+finish+at+the+2020+Tokyo+Olympics%2C+Andrei+Minakov+lay+paralyzed+in+pain+and+disappointment.

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After his second fourth-place finish at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Andrei Minakov lay paralyzed in pain and disappointment.

By Kara Mihm, North Allegheny Senior High School

“Almost.”

That fatal word described the performance of 339 athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. The blink of an eye or the fraction of an inch separated the top world medalists from the empty-handed fourth-place finishers in practically each of the summer games’ 33 sports.

Needless to say, finishing fourth at the Olympics is an outstanding feat that should be celebrated all over the world.  However, for many athletes, finishing below third place can be a travesty, missing out not only on a medal, but on loads of sponsorships and newfound stardom.  The result can leave athletes grappling with years of second-guessing and nightmares of rewinds. 

Russian swimmer Andrei Minakov, a freshman at Stanford, has found himself in a similar situation at just nineteen years old. Swimming for the Russian Olympic Committee, Minakov finished fourth in the 100-meter butterfly, just .14 seconds behind third-place finisher Noe Ponti. With the race down to the final strokes, Minakov recalled his thoughts going into the wall.

“Whatever happens, I still have the relay,” Minakov recalled in a recent interview with The Uproar.

To remember the past year and a half, when I pushed through back injuries and the coronavirus, to walk out of Tokyo without a medal, it was devastating. I just felt empty inside of me.”

— Andrei Minakov, Olympic swimmer

A day later, his shot at redemption arrived in the 4 x 100 meter medley relay. The Russian team was poised to have a high finish in the relay, featuring 100 meter backstroke champion Evgeny Rylov and third-place finisher in the 100 free Kliment Kolesnikov.  However, a slow start caused the team to finish fourth, this time by .05 seconds. The raced marked another fourth-place finish for Minakov.

Now over a month from the games, Minakov looks back at the years of preparation. 

“There was a long period of time when I was overcome by the knowledge that everything was over and that what I wanted versus what I expected did not come true,” he said. “To remember the past year and a half, when I pushed through back injuries and the coronavirus, to walk out of Tokyo without a medal, it was devastating. I just felt empty inside of me.”

The emptiness that overwhelmed Minakov is familiar to 18-year-old American swimmer Torri Huske, also a freshman at Stanford and one of the nation’s top recruits last year. 

Up until the last few meters of Huske’s first event, she was on world-record pace in the individual 100-meter butterfly. A bad touch resulted in a finish that unleashed a torrent of emotions.

“It hurt knowing that I gained time and that I not only missed third by .01 [seconds] but first by 0.14. It was hard knowing that one touch or breath could have altered the course of the race for me, but that’s the nature of the sport,” Huske told The Uproar.

In the instant replay from the event, the NBC Sports reporter can be heard saying, “Huske went so fast in that third twenty-five meters, but then just fell away and missed the medals.”

NBC Sports

“Fell away and missed the medals” could have been a crushing punch to the gut, but for Huske, it proved to be the motivation to win silver in her next event.

“Acknowledging the disappointment helped, and I feel like after I did that I was able to move on,” she said.

Like Minakov, Huske had one more chance to reach the Olympic podium, again in the 4×100 meter medley relay. This time, however, her story finished differently from the Russian’s.

The American women narrowly lost to the heavily favored Australians, finishing second by .13 seconds in a stellar race to cap off the Olympics. Nevertheless, it was a medal-winning performance.  After a heartbreaking swim in the 100 fly, Huske bounced back and achieved her silver medal.

In the end, she attained her lifelong dream and flew out of Tokyo with a glimmering Olympic medal, but most athletes who train for the majority of their young adult lives and make it to the world stage are not so fortunate.

Acknowledging the disappointment helped, and I feel like after I did that I was able to move on.”

— Torri Huske, Olympic swimmer

Upon arrival home to their countries, athletes are faced with two decisions: continue the mental and physical grind for four more years, with no guarantee that they will finish better, or move on from the sport and forward with their lives. 

The quadrennial calendar that the Olympics is set upon shatters the hearts of many fourth-place athletes, especially those who are nearing the end of their careers.  Walking away from the competition once and for all with no medal can seem a cruel ending to the years of sacrifices made for their sport.

Torri Huske grabbed a silver medal in the 4×100 Medley Relay after missing the podium by .01 seconds in her last event. Getty Images

Fortunately for Minakov, the four-year Olympic cycle offers a chance at redemption. Less than a week ago, he arrived at Stanford, where he looks forward to a level of training that he hopes will prepare him for Paris in 2024, the site of the next summer Olympics.

“The results of Tokyo made me more humble and true to the process,” he said. “All of the preparation for the next Olympics is going to take a lot of effort, but I am truly excited because now I will be training with a new coach and a fun group of boys.”

For Minakov, the past is more of a reminder than a regret. 

“I am ready for the new stage of my life,” he said. “I just want to move on so that I can prepare for the next games. Hopefully, I get to race the same people. I want a rematch.”

This story was originally published on The Uproar on September 13, 2021.