By David Woods, USA TODAY
LONDON -- Four years ago, Davis Tarwater was devastated. Today, he was exhilarated.
His dream, he said, was coming true.
"I swam that race a million times in my head the last 20 years," said Tarwater, a University of Michigan graduate who hails from Knoxville, Tenn. "Now to have a chance to finally come out and participate in the Olympics is just surreal."
He might have guaranteed himself a gold medal in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay, an event in which the United States will be favored in tonight's final.
Tarwater, a first-time Olympian at age 28, broke open what had been a close race on the third leg of today's preliminaries. The United States posted the top time of 7 minutes, 6.76 seconds.
Tarwater's leg was timed in 1:46.33. Of 64 swimmers, the only ones faster were U.S. teammate Conor Dwyer (1:45.52) and world record-holder Paul Biedermann of Germany (1:45.62).
The Americans are expected to employ Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Ricky Berens and Dwyer in the final. Tarwater made the U.S. team by finishing seventh at the U.S. trials. Medals are awarded to any swimmers who compete in either the prelims or final.
Tarwater unexpectedly failed to make the 2008 Olympics in the 200 butterfly and briefly retired from the sport. He was consoled by his uncle, Richmond Flowers Jr., who in 1968 was an Olympic medal contender in the 110-meter hurdles before a hamstring injury ended that quest.
Tarwater's interest in swimming was rekindled during a year at Oxford University, where he earned a master's degree in Latin American studies. He was a Big Ten Medal of Honor winner at Michigan as the university's top student-athlete.
Tarwater said friends he made at Oxford bought tickets for the prelims - some as recently as today - so they could watch their former classmate.
"People called from various places around the world, waking up at all hours of the night," he said. "It's amazing to have that kind of support. And to come back to the place where I was educated and made such great friends has been unbelievable."
Tarwater won a gold medal by swimming in prelims of the 4x200 freestyle relay at the 2009 World Championships.
Unless he unexpectedly swims tonight's final, or continues his career after this year, his Olympic prelim will be his last race as a competitive swimmer. He said it was "amazing" to swim in front of a crowd that nearly filled the 17,500-seat Aquatics Centre.
"Even at 28, with a lot of international experience, nothing matches the Olympics," Tarwater said. "My heart was pumping so intensely that I was just trying to calm myself down. Standing on the blocks, waiting to take the exchange, I was just saying, 'Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.'
"I'm still trying to come down from it, it's such a rush."
David Woods writes for The Indianapolis Star