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Have you ever had that one golden opportunity – and blown it? Ever been given that perfect chance to come up with the right answer, make the right impression, or do the job the right way, in a situation in which it really mattered, and instead had everything go spectacularly wrong? If you feel there is one missed opportunity you will always regret, consider the story of Park Tae-hwan.

In 2004, Park was a young South Korean swimmer with dreams of Olympic gold. He had been swimming since he was five years old and competing for almost as long. It had been his goal to travel to Athens, Greece, that summer, as a member of South Korea’s Olympic swimming team, and as so many ambitious and determined athletes from all around the world have done over the years, he worked and practiced and sacrificed in pursuit of that goal.

Park specialized in freestyle, but he swam at several different lengths – 200 meters, 400 meters, 1500 meters – hoping for the opportunity to compete at more than one distance in Athens. Alas, such multiple opportunities were not to be. When the South Korean Olympic team was selected, Park was only chosen to compete in the men’s 400 meter freestyle. Just one chance at a medal. One event. But that year, any swimmer who wanted the world to notice him couldn’t have swum in a bigger event.

The eyes of the swimming community were focusing on the men’s 400 meter freestyle even before the 2004 Olympics had begun. In the qualifying 400 meter race at the 2004 Australian Championships, Aussie star and defending Olympic champion Ian Thorpe overbalanced on the starting block on which he was standing before the race began. He fell forward into the water well before the starting gun was sounded. This was ruled a “false start”, just as if he had intentionally tried to gain an advantage by starting early. Thorpe was disqualified from the heat and thus never made it to the finals. Two other Australians, Grant Hackett and Craig Stevens, were tagged to swim the 400 for their country in Athens. Many in Australia were upset that their star athlete would not be allowed to defend his medal, but many others argued that no one, not even a star, can depend upon a return trip to the Olympics. In the end, Stevens publicly gave up his slot for Thorpe. Some people assumed a payoff was involved – scandalous for the Olympics. Having received this lucky break, would Thorpe even perform as well as he had in 2000? Everyone would be watching.
Disqualification
This was the stage onto which Park Tae-hwan stepped that August when he walked into the Olympic Aquatic Centre to take part in the third preliminary heat. He strode to take his place in lane #2, and then he and the seven other participants in the heat stepped up onto their starting blocks, forming a line of clean-shaven young men in colorful trunks. This was it! His dream come true. He was going to get to compete in the Olympics! And Park was fast. He had a real shot at landing one of the top eight fastest times, which would mean a trip to the finals. Of course, then he’d probably be racing against the Australians . . .

“Take your mark,” the race announcer instructed over the Aquatic Centre’s speakers. All eight racers bent over at the waist, placing their hands at the forward edge of the starting blocks. Park was among them, shifting his body weight, getting himself into position to leap into the water at the sound of the starting gun. And then . . . he shifted just a little too far forward. By the time Park realized what was happening, he was past the point of no return. He could not pull himself back, and as the announcer was telling the racers, “Stand clear,” Park lost his balance entirely, and fell into the water. Just as with Thorpe in the Australian Championships, Park was ruled to have committed a false start. He was disqualified.

Park’s Olympics were over before they had started. He had had one chance, and he did not simply perform badly – his mistake robbed him of the opportunity to perform at all. Perhaps his only opportunity ever. Park was no Thorpedo, a national star who had been practically guaranteed a return. And in one of the most high-profile swimming contests of the 2004 Olympics, Park had committed the same careless mistake that had brought the event so much notoriety! It is hard to imagine a more heartbreakingly avoidable, publicly humiliating, soul-crushing waste of a golden opportunity. How could anyone recover from something like that?

Park recovered by winning the gold medal in the 400 meter freestyle at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

After his disqualification in Athens, he continued to practice and improve, snagging gold medals in the 400 meter and other freestyle events in the 2006 Asian Games and Pan Pacific Championships. In 2007, he won the gold in the World Aquatics Championships, making him the reigning world champion at the time of the 2008 Olympics. He was able to qualify to swim for Korea in the 400 meter (as did Hackett and Stevens, once again, for Australia, and this time Stevens did compete), and in winning the finals he set a new Asian record and become the first South Korean to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming.

Needless to say, his performance in Beijing was vastly better than his performance in Athens. But his success in 2008 depended upon the right perspective on his failure in 2004. Instead of eternally regretting his missed opportunity, Park focused on creating new opportunities. So should all of us who encounter a devastating disappointment, no matter how rueful our performances nor how apparently unique the circumstances. Accepting the past and focusing on the future are the keys to transforming failures from apparent dead-end streets into mere detours and diversions on the route to success.