After touching the wall nearly five seconds after Smith and almost two seconds behind Eastin, Beisel made her way to their lanes at the Indiana University Natatorium and offered her congratulations. “I’m handing you over the 400 I.M. baton,” she told them.
She was embracing Eastin when Beisel glanced at the scoreboard and saw that a DQ had replaced Eastin’s time. “Oh my god, Ella, look,” she said.
As Eastin’s ecstasy turned to agony, Beisel took in the fact that she had moved up a place, to second, extending her remarkable streak to 12 consecutive international events.
“You go from cloud nine to rock bottom in three seconds,” Beisel said, referring to Eastin, who was disqualified for staying on her back for too long on the freestyle turn. She added: “I’m excited to be going to Budapest, but I did not make the team under circumstances that I’m proud of.”
Beisel’s longtime club coach, Chuck Batchelor, stood on the pool deck watching the scene unfold and had a different reaction. Here was a teachable moment for his younger swimmers. “The lesson is never give up because you never know,” Batchelor said. “All of a sudden third place was second place. That’s why it is so important to always give an honest effort.”
For selfish reasons, Smith, 22, was glad she will have at least one more United States team camp to train alongside Beisel. “I’ve been in awe of her since she made her first national team at 13,” she said. “I think she’s a role model for everyone on the national team.”
Before Smith added the individual medley to her repertory this summer, she was a freestyle specialist who spent the past four years chasing Katie Ledecky’s feet in the 800- and 1,500-meter races. If anyone could appreciate the competing thoughts jockeying for Beisel’s attention in the final 100 of Thursday’s I.M., it was Smith, who at last summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics finished 16 seconds behind Ledecky in the 800 and five seconds behind her in the 400 freestyle.
“She finishes in most races very far ahead of me,” Smith said, referring to Ledecky. “You could even argue if Katie’s that far ahead of you and you’re that far ahead of everyone else, you could just not try as much.”
But Smith said she has never given any less than her best effort from start to finish. “It’s about pride and dignity and putting it all on the line,” she said.
You do not make a dozen consecutive international teams in a time-intensive sport like swimming without making plenty of sacrifices. Between 2005, when Beisel competed in her first world championship trials, and the 2016 Games, where she made her third straight Olympic final in the 400 I.M., she never took a vacation, never took a trip that did not involve swimming.
After her sixth-place finish in Rio de Janeiro, Beisel dedicated this year to saying yes to every opportunity. She traveled to Iceland to visit a friend she had swum with at the University of Florida. She trekked around the world with her longtime United States national team roommate, Allison Schmitt. She visited Alaska with another friend.
Beisel, who earned her undergraduate degree in communications, also found time to work in the sports department at her local NBC affiliate in Providence, R.I. She interviewed athletes from almost every sport except swimming and became proficient in putting together story packages.
“I just did things I never would have been able to do if I had been training heavily,” Beisel said, adding, “Honestly, it was the happiest year of my life.”
The time away from heavy training gave Beisel a glimpse of her future, and she was excited about what she saw. “I think what those months showed me is that there is a life after swimming and retirement isn’t scary,” Beisel said.
Batchelor, normally a stickler about his athletes committing 100 percent to their training, was happy to make an exception for Beisel at this stage in her career. If she came to the pool five days in a row and then missed the next four days, he said nothing.
“Even though philosophically, as a coach you tell your kids they’re either all in or out, I felt like what she gave to the sport for the last however many years, I enjoyed seeing her have a good time, and in a way she had earned that,” he said.
In April, Beisel threw herself back into training for one last world championships selection meet. At her first, in 2005, she finished 22nd in the 200 backstroke. Two years later, she made her first world championships squad and placed 12th in the 200 backstroke. At the 2011 world championships, Beisel won the 400 I.M. The next year, she won the silver medal in the event at the London Olympics in a personal best of 4 minutes 31.27 seconds.
On Thursday, Beisel clocked a 4:38.55. With another month of training, she is sure she can do better. “Am I a medal contender? Probably not,” she said. “I bring more leadership to the table than medals. That’s what I’m really excited about. I have one more chance to really show these young ’uns what to do.”