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Candy, a few years after the dream ended.

Candy, a few years after the dream had faded.

Candy and Justin met the first night of U.S. Nationals in Denver, at one of those cheesy ice cream socials the Olympics people set up so swimmers could get acquainted. The two of them hit it off, talking into the early morning hours about Pixar movies, their favorite 1980s hair bands and the captivating prose of Nick Hornby.

Two nights later, when Candy finished third in the women’s 100-meter Butterfly and Justin came in second in the Freestyle, they celebrated by hitting a few clubs in the city’s LoDo district. They were both in their teens but nobody thought to card the two tall, toned swimmers still giddy over advancing to the Olympic team qualifying round. At some point, on a drunken dare, they stumbled into separate rooms of a tattoo parlor. Justin emerged with a shoulder emblazoned with a gold medal and the words, “Athens 2004.”

When he saw the script lettering above Candy’s chest, he laughed.

“Dude,” he said. “Do you even know what that means?”

Of course she did. It meant that Candy was one step closer to realizing the goal she set for herself the first time she dove into a lap pool: to someday represent the United States as a swimmer in the Olympics. And, of course, to take home the gold.

When Justin explained the baser, more popular meaning of the term, “Wet Dream,” Candy was surprised and a little embarrassed. She was 17 and so focused on her sport and schoolwork that maybe she was a little unfamiliar with the latest teen slang. She knew she was inexperienced. That night was only the second time she had kissed a boy, the two of them snuggled under Justin’s fleece Team USA jacket a few feet from the entrance to Coors Field.

Years later, after she failed twice to qualify for the Olympic team, long after Justin ditched her to live with a Bulgarian gymnast, Candy began to resent the tattoo. She suspected its prominent place just below her neck hurt her chances at a respectable office job and locked her into life as a waitress at a Pennsylvania roadhouse called “Meats.” Candy thought more than once about getting the tattoo removed. But that would be painful, and not just in a physical sense. It would mean turning back from a dream she’d held close since she was a little girl staring up at the posters of Mark Spitz that hung in her bedroom.

Candy wasn’t prepared to make that break. Not yet.