Jendrick got to the mountain top, and then she was knocked back down. She was an Olympic champion in 2000. And an Olympic trials also-ran — by a mere 11 hundredths of a second — four years later.

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BEIJING — Megan Jendrick knows what it’s like to be on top of this world. She knows the feeling of walking through a gantlet of reporters after a big race and hearing the swarm calling her name and shouting questions at her.

It’s good to be the queen.

Jendrick knows the soaring feeling of swimming faster than anyone else on the planet, of standing on an Olympic podium, hearing her national anthem and fighting back the tears.

She understands the indescribable thrill of all of that.

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But Jendrick also knows that fame is fleeting. That there is always another generation of swimmers stalking. There is always another race, something else to prove.

And no matter how good your credentials — Jendrick won two gold medals in the 2000 Sydney Olympics — in swimming’s cruel, competitive world, the stop watch knows no history and you’re only as good as your last stroke.

Jendrick got to the mountain top, and then she was knocked back down. She was an Olympic champion in 2000. And an Olympic trials also-ran — by a mere 11 hundredths of a second — four years later.

She could have quit. In fact, she did, briefly, before deciding to take one more pull toward another Olympics.

And Monday morning, in what might have been her last best chance to make an individual final, Jendrick pulled past the odds, pushed herself to the wall and qualified for Tuesday’s final in the 100-meter breaststroke.

“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in the last eight years,” Jendrick said, standing alone in the media mixed zone, while reporters from around the world clamored to talk with other swimmers. “Missing the Olympics in ’04 was hard and to get to another Olympic final, well, we’ll see what I can do tomorrow morning.”

Life is easy on the top. You get the best lanes to swim in. The best training times and facilities. The best tables at restaurants. You get the star treatment.

But after you’ve lived in that world, after you’ve come back down from the top, after you’ve lost by less than the beat of your heart, you learn about yourself.

You find out what’s inside. Sometimes you even surprise yourself.

“Oh yeah, I’ve surprised myself,” said Jendrick, who finished seventh overall in the Monday’s semifinals with a time of 1 minute, 08.07 seconds. “Being on top is a great place to be, but you can learn a lot from the ups and downs, when you’re not always on top.

“You learn a lot more about determination and perseverance. And I think that, although it’s not always the best position to be in when you’re not on top, it really brings out the best in people when you’re able to push through that. You find out what you’re really made of.”

Jendrick, who was Megan Quann of Puyallup when she won two golds in Sydney, but lost to rival Tara Kirk by that infinitesimal click in the ’04 trials, qualified for these Games by beating Kirk by one hundredth of a second.

That blink-of-a-moment got her back. That blink was her reward for not giving up, her reminder that some victories are personal. And winners sometimes earn something more valuable than gold.

“Making the Olympic team was a really big success in my eyes, after not making it in ’04,” she said just moments after her race. “And now that I’m in the ’08 finals I’m really excited about that.”

This Olympics, Jendrick isn’t expected to medal in her individual race, but she should medal in the relay.

Her heat time (1:05.80) was more than two seconds slower than the fastest qualifier, Australia’s Leisel Jones. Jendrick may not win, but she still is a winner.

“I feel like I won something today,” she said. “I looked forward to making this for a very long time, so I feel excited to be back in it. I think it’s going to be an uphill battle to medal tomorrow, but I’m definitely up for the challenge.”

She was 16 when she won two golds in Sydney. A kid. And, when you’re 16 and successful, you can feel like you’re going to be on top of this world forever.

But Jendrick learned life’s truths over the last eight years. She learned that wins come in different ways.

And early Monday morning she discovered that finishing seventh and qualifying for one more Olympics final can feel practically golden.

Steve Kelley:

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