Considering her parents’ concerns about the Zika virus and her wounded shoulder and their anticipation of her getting on with her life when she heads to law school at Vanderbilt in a few weeks, Overland Park’s Shannon Vreeland had it figured like this:
If and when she failed to earn an encore trip to the Olympics, the 2012 swimming gold medalist pictured them high-fiving in the stands before conjuring sad faces when they saw her.
“That’s how it’s going to go down,” she said with a laugh as she prepared for the U.S. Olympic swimming trials.
But when her truest chance to return was terminated abruptly Tuesday night at the CenturyLink Center, what surged through them was not relief at all.
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Instead, what emerged was a poignant appreciation of a phase of her life that had taken her around the globe and helped her grow into a smart, strong and confident young woman who forever will know a feeling few ever will:
To have been the best in the world at something.
Something that to her was only enhanced, not diminished, by having done it as part of a relay — a telling aspect of her character.
“It was going to end sometime,” said her mother, Connie, with tears dried around her eyes. “She has so much to look forward to.”
Added her father, Dan: “Life will go on. Tomorrow, things will be alright.”
Yes, even after the temporary flinching from finishing 15th out of 16 in the 200-meter freestyle semifinals.
It was a depressing finale in her signature event surely largely caused by the agonizing shoulder issue she’s been fighting for months.
In the immediate aftermath, Vreeland, 23, was rendered speechless.
As she walked out of the pool through the media interview area known as the mixed zone, she simply shook her head “no” as she walked by the reporter waiting to speak with her.
That was understandable enough in what had to feel like a transitional moment in her life.
While she still is scheduled to compete in the 100-meter freestyle later in the week, this almost certainly was her most realistic Olympic opportunity.
Much as she might have been momentarily pierced by what she called “my worst race ever” in a text message to her mother, the thoughts she offered in a less jarring situation earlier in the day were more indicative of her real perspective.
“It’s weird, but the end has always been coming,” said Vreeland, the Kansas City-area’s only Olympic gold medalist since the 2000 Sydney Games. “I’m so ready for the next step of my life. I’m more OK with not making the team than I’ve ever been.”
Only weeks ago, she said it would take a miracle for her to qualify, and per their mother, she went as far as to tell her twin sister, Michelle: “Don’t bother coming; I’m not going to make it.”
Not that Michelle, a teacher in the Blue Valley School District, wasn’t riveted even from home:
She posted on Facebook that “after almost 20 years, and I don’t know how many meets I still tear up with joy when the announcer says the name Shannon Vreeland … Know I’m yelling at my phone from Kansas City cheering for you during every race :). I love you.”
The sphere directly around Vreeland in Omaha was marked with some consoling symmetry befitting a passage in her life.
For one thing, she was surrounded by dear friends from the University of Georgia, where she was a 21-time All-American and Southeastern Conference scholar-athlete of the year.
Three other Bulldogs were in her semifinal heat alone — a good and right thing for someone who always relished the team aspect of an individual sport, loved her time with them and continued to train in Athens after graduating in December 2014.
Then there was the full-circle sensation of choosing to stay in a hotel room with her parents, harkening to her early competitive years swimming with the Kansas City Blazers.
Back in those days, Dan Vreeland remembered, they’d talk all day about swimming and fall asleep talking about swimming and probably dream swimming, too.
Now, with so many realized dreams and a new adventure and phase of life ahead, they mostly talked about everything but that.
They watched “American Ninja Warrior” for a while on Monday night as Shannon lay on one bed about encased in ice around her shoulder.
The three of them walked together Tuesday from their hotel to the CenturyLink for what seemed a promising preliminary swim.
After that, she stood fifth with a time of 1:58.29 — a better time than her prelim swim on the way to qualifying for the 2012 London Games.
But a day after her shoulder had clamped her down in the back half of the 400 freestyle, it seemed to strike again in the evening.
She could only muster a time of 2:00.48, bringing on the inevitable faster than anyone would have liked.
Including, it turns out, her parents — who, all teasing aside, suddenly have one more thing to be proud of now.
A daughter who honored her sport but refreshingly and inspiringly never forgot there is life outside it.
And, soon, after it.
“She’s ready,” Connie Vreeland said, “to come into her own.”