Ryan Cochrane gets a second chance, and grabs an Olympic silver medal

LONDON -- For four years, Ryan Cochrane beat himself up about Beijing. Bronze wasn't good enough in the men's 1,500-metre freestyle, even though he wasn't supposed to make the podium back then and that was Canada's only swimming medal at those Olympics. He felt he could have raced better. He felt he could have done more.

Now here was Cochrane in London, smiling with silver around his neck, finally satisfied.

"This is the happiest I've been after I think any race in my career," Cochrane said Saturday evening. "I was just so thankful to know that there was nothing else I could have done. The surprising swims are usually the best, but this wasn’t surprising at all. This was what I've worked towards, and it's definitely the best feeling I've had."

Cochrane set a Canadian record in the 1,500 free with a time of 14:39.63. He set the previous record in a Beijing heat, but that was while wearing one of the high-tech, high-speed suits that are now outlawed. So he got even faster even as the technology got slower, and he finished second only to China's Sun Yang, who shattered his own world record in 14:31.02. A 23-year-old from Victoria with burning ambition, Cochrane has become the vocal leader of the Canadian swimming program, pushing his teammates to aim higher so they can achieve more. His silver didn't get them to their goal of three medals in this meet -- the Olympic swim meet is over, so other than Brent Hayden's bronze in the 100 free, this will be it -- but it was Canada's highest Olympic swimming medal since Marianne Limpert took silver in the 200 individual medley at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games.

[Slideshow: Ryan Cochrane photos]

And this medal helped boost the Canadian Olympic team as a whole. The Canadians won a full set Saturday, with Rosie MacLennan winning gold in women's trampoline -- Canada's first gold of the Games -- and Gillian Carleton, Jasmin Glaesser and Tara Whitten taking bronze in the women's cycling team pursuit.

Four years ago, Canada didn't win a medal in Beijing until Day 8. But the Canadian team hit double digits in London on Day 8 thanks to the trifecta that was capped by Cochrane’s silver finish. The Canadians, whose ambitious goal is to rank in the "Top 12 in 2012," sit 11th in the overall count with 10 medals and seven days of competition remaining.

Cochrane credited the Own the Podium program, which provides extra funding to medal contenders. The program began in the run-up to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, hoping to boost results on home soil. Canada came up big then, and we might be seeing some aftereffects here.

"It was a rough first week in Beijing," Cochrane said. "I remember we got a bit crucified for it. But the momentum started, and I think we saw it in the Vancouver Games, what it meant to be Canadian, a Canadian high in sport, and we've definitely progressed in that field."

[Watch: Rosie MacLennan wins Canada's first gold medal at London Games]

Cochrane said his biggest frustration in swimming comes from lost opportunities. He felt he lost one in Beijing in the 1,500 free. He felt he lost one in the 400 free on the first day of the meet in London, when he qualified eighth for the final, only to be bumped out of the field when South Korea's Park Tae-hwan successfully appealed a false start disqualification.

"The emotional pain," he said, "was pretty tough."

Cochrane would not lose this opportunity. He would not be distracted by another near false start. Sun leapt into the pool early and alone Saturday night, surfacing with a confused look on his face.

"At that moment, I was so scared," Sun said through a translator. "And it was all black before my eyes."

But Sun was not disqualified because he did not actually false start. The swimmers were told to take their marks and then to step down, because the crowd was too loud. Sun heard the second command and took off. He didn't leave before the start signal because there was no start signal yet.

Sun was upset when the officials pushed the swimmers back on the blocks quickly, making a couple of timeout signals with his hands. The other swimmers felt rushed, too. But Cochrane was calm. He was ready.

[Also: Jessica Zelinka in tears after sixth-place finish in heptathlon]

"I think I was prepared for anything at that point," Cochrane said. "They could have made us wait an hour, and it wouldn't have mattered. It was, 'No matter what, we're going to get in and swim.' It comes with experience. Maybe my first time around it would have been harder to deal with, but now it seems like nothing's going to bother us."

Sun took an immediate lead and extended it steadily throughout the race, a testament to his own talent and focus. He looked effortless, efficient, as if he wasn’t even using his legs. No one was going to catch him.

Cochrane was in third early -- and ahead of world-record pace for almost 600 metres. He fell behind world-record pace, but he went into second as Park faded. He felt good, better than he had in Beijing, when he said "so much pain was built up" inside him. He had trained hard, really hard, pushing himself to puke twice during a pre-Olympics camp in Hawaii, and it was paying off.

His strategy was paying off, too. He wanted to come out fast, but not too fast. He wanted to have something left at the end, but only so he could burn it all up down the stretch. For about 500 metres, he maintained about a body-length lead over Tunisia's Oussama Mellouli, the defending Olympic champion. Mellouli had passed him in Beijing. He wasn't going to pass him again. Mellouli closed the gap to half a body length at the final turn, but Cochrane held on with a strong final 50 metres.

"When he passed me in Beijing, I wasn't expecting it," Cochrane said. "This time, I was expecting it, and I was going to fight probably to the death to make sure he didn't get to the wall first."

[Watch: Donovan Bailey's prediction for the 100 metres]

Sun was overcome by gold. He sat on a lane marker, pointed to the crowd, splashed the water and wept. "I was so scared that I would be disqualified, I was so happy and so relieved when I finished," he said through a translator.

Cochrane's celebration, meanwhile, consisted of sucking wind. And in the weird, twisted world of the 1,500 free, the most gruelling event in the pool, the one Cochrane calls "15 minutes of pain," it was sweet.

"I wasn't really smiling after my race," Cochrane said. "I was gasping for air, and I was happy about that."

Cochrane had found the balance. He had put all the work in, and he had left it all in the pool. Maybe one day he will be able to hit 14:31.02, like Sun did, or even break 14:30.00. But there was no way he would have been able to do it Saturday night. He had done the absolute best he could do.

So he smiled as the silver medal was put around his neck, and he climbed the stands to hand his flowers to his mother, Donna, who cooked all those dinners to refuel him, and to acknowledge his father, John, who had driven him to the pool at 5:30 a.m. every day for 10 years.

Cochrane said his biggest frustration in swimming comes from lost opportunities. But asked if this was an opportunity seized, he said: "Absolutely."

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