Remember the 100 meter butterfly at the 2008 Olympics? The race when Michael Phelps edged Milorad Cavic by .01 of a second? The race when modern technology proved swimming would never see another tie?
Well, yeah, about that: On August 5, 2010, at the USA Swimming National Championships, Josh Schneider and Cullen Jones hit the wall at the exact moment, 21.97 seconds, in the 50 meter freestyle. And not every venue has the kind of down-to-the-nanosecond technology we saw in Beijing. So there was a tie.
This was a tie for second, though. And why not give them both silver medals?
Because the story is not that simple. Only the top two finishers get spots in the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai. Schneider (left) and Jones (below) could not both be awarded second place.
So make them get back in the pool and race each other again. Winner of the "swimoff" gets the final spot. Right?
But things got even more complicated.
Prior to the 50 meter free final, Schneider's name had been called for the 100 meter butterfly. But he didn't show up.
"I wasn't supposed to be entered in it," Schneider says. "It was a big mistake."
When Schneider walked to the starting block for the 50 meter free, USA Swimming officials tried to turn him around. They claimed that by being a no-show at the 100 meter fly, he had disqualified himself for his remaining events.
Schneider discovered that his coach had accidentally placed him the 100 meter fly. He tried getting the disqualification appealed. No dice.
As the minutes passed away before the 50 meter free, Schneider made a decision: He swam under protest.
When Schneider tied Jones, the two men could not simply jump back in the pool. Under normal circumstances, tiebreakers are settled by a swimoff within a day or two of the event. However, in this case, officials hesitated on the ruling due to Schneider's time being technically illegal at the finish of the event. They planned on waiting until after the meet week to determine the validity of Schneider's time.
As if things could not get any more complicated ...
Schneider broke his hand the next day in the 100 meter free preliminary finals while racing under protest (again). The injury meant that a quick swimoff was out of the question. At about that time, Schneider was notified about the death of his grandfather, an event that he had been expecting, but chose to race through.
After the National Championships, USA Swimming released Schneider from the national team as punishment for the 100 meter fly incident. Schneider's spot on the Pan Pacific Championships team in late August was given to a former teammate.
Schneider responded the American way: he contacted a lawyer. "I didn't know if they would count my time or not," he says. Yet Schneider put all his marbles into convincing a judge to salvage his shot at Shanghai.
It worked. On September 16, Schneider was reinstated to the national team.
And finally, we have ourselves a swimoff.
More than nine months since the original race, Schneider and Jones will finally settle second place in a single heat on Thursday in Charlotte, N.C. In the time it takes to pour a cold beverage, Schneider and Jones will finish months of waiting.
"We've been talking about it for eight months," Schneider says. "I'm ready. It's here."
Swimoffs are pretty rare. The last time two Team USA swimmers raced in a duel for the final World Championships spot was in 2009, when Garrett Weber-Gale lost to none other than Cullen Jones in the 50 meter free:
It gets even better: Schneider and Jones both train on the SwimMAC Carolina team with David Marsh as their trainer. Schneider considers Jones a close friend and says this whole process has been tough on him. "It stinks, but it happened," he says. "We're both ready to get it over with and move on."
Olympic athletes do not have the highest incomes in the world and this whole process has been a financial gamble. "If I win, I go to Shanghai," Schneider says. "If I don't win, it's a big financial loss from contracts. It's $20,000 on the line."
Jones, who you may remember from his part in the thrilling come-from-behind freestyle relay win in Beijing, would not comment for this story.
Despite the risk, Schneider likes the idea of a swimoff and thinks it can only be positive for swimming. "I wish they would do more events like this," he says. "More sprints would bring in more fans."
So after nine months of chaos, Josh Schneider and Cullen Jones will finally hit the water on Thursday night with a trip to Shanghai on the line. The turbulence of a freak disqualification, a broken hand, and a lawsuit will be dismissed. And it comes in the form of a sudden death swimoff.
Unless, of course, they tie again.
Eric Adelson contributed to this report.