Roy Burch was in a tattoo parlor somewhere in Beijing, a small shop tucked into one of the city’s thousand alleyways.
It was 2008, and Burch was in China competing in his first Olympics. He was 22, representing Bermuda on the world stage, and he wanted to commemorate the occasion.
With help from his team’s attache, Burch found a tattoo parlor willing to ink him. His request? The Olympic rings, inside his left bicep.
So he went to this tiny parlor, with its wooden door and spiral staircase and bed in the downstairs room, and got his tattoo.
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Eight years later, those rings have a different significance. He’s trying to qualify for August’s Olympic Games in Brazil.
When he was an aspiring medalist, Burch’s goal was always to get better. Now he just wants to get back.
This week, he has one final chance.
His arrow pointing up
After failing to reach the semifinals of the 100-meter freestyle in Beijing, Burch knew he needed a change if he ever hoped to medal.
He spoke with two-time Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones, who was training in Charlotte with coach David Marsh.
In 2010, Burch moved with his wife and daughter to nearby Cornelius. At first he trained with high-schoolers, not Marsh’s elite swimmers. He qualified for the London Games in 2012, this time in the 50-meter freestyle, but again failed to make the semis.
After London, he rededicated himself. Back in Charlotte, he was the first swimmer into practice and the last one out.
By January of 2015, Burch was beating people he hadn’t beaten before – Jones included.
“His trajectory, although it’s hard to say, may have been medals,” Marsh said. “But certainly to the finals, and he never made the finals before.”
‘Had already come this far’
It was a normal morning in March of 2015. This summer’s Olympics in Rio were nearly a year and a half away.
His future changed in an instant.
Playing basketball in the Queens University gym before practice, Burch went up to dunk, normal for someone with a 35-inch vertical jump. His legs gave out as he went up, and he fell to the ground, grasping his knees.
He had ruptured both patellar tendons and had surgery the next day. He’d be in a wheelchair for the next three months.
Burch considered giving up but ultimately couldn’t.
“I had already come this far,” Burch said. “It wasn’t as if this is a four-year cycle, but this has been 20 years in the making.
“If I’ve already gone for 19 years, I might as well go for the 20th and see what happens.”
‘Who’s gonna do that?’
Doctors told Burch he’d swim by September 2015, but he was out of action until November. He slept on the pull-out couch in his living room and had a bedside commode.
He also rehabbed, diligently. A continuous passive motion machine bent Burch’s legs back and forth, for five hours each every day.
“Once I found out I had to have my leg in this machine for 10 hours, who’s gonna do that?” Burch said. “I guess I was the only one that was willing.”
When he finally swam in a 50-meter freestyle race, in November, he finished in 24.6 seconds.
The qualifying time for Rio is 23.05.
In swimming’s fastest race, Burch had six months to shave a second and a half off his time. But he’d come too far to quit.
Just not fast enough
In May, a little more than two months before the Olympics, Burch entered the Bermuda National Championships, his home country’s last qualifying event for Rio hopefuls.
In the final heat of the 50-meter freestyle, Burch needed his best post-injury time to make it to a third Olympics. He had already swam twice that day, but midway through he was confident.
“I knew I was gonna be right around it when I got to about 35 meters,” Burch said.
He touched the wall and looked at the scoreboard for his time.
He had missed qualifying by sixth-hundreths of a second.
After all the setbacks and the rehab and the pain, he just wasn’t fast enough.
In an interview after the race, Burch told a Bermuda newspaper he was retired.
“That’s it,” he said that day. “Physically I don’t know if I can take it anymore.”
At the time, Burch was content.
“I got close,” Burch said. “I was happy with my effort, and that was it.”
But that wasn’t it. At a national team dinner later that night, Burch’s coach told him about the Caribbean Championships.
Burch was already signed up. He just didn’t know they were Olympic qualifying races.
He un-retired the next morning.
“Once I found out I had another chance, I was kind of reignited,” Burch said.
‘Look past that moment’
For the past month, Burch has trained in Charlotte with Marsh and several U.S. Olympic hopefuls on SwimMAC Elite. Whether he makes the Olympic qualifying standard is still up in the air, though.
“He’s on the door of the times he needs to go,” Marsh said. “A while after the surgery, he didn’t even fathom that he could go that fast.”
Burch’s goal – and mindset – changed. Medaling isn’t realistic anymore. But qualifying? Even that would be an impressive comeback now.
“If I could be in the place where I was before I got injured, that’d be awesome,” Burch said. “But if not, then it is what it is. I’ve had a good journey.”
Not ever winning an Olympic medal? That’s OK. Two Olympics, and having one more shot at a third, is enough, Burch said. By Burch’s definition, he is already a success.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys medal,” Burch said, “and it’s not the be-all end-all.
“It’s amazing, it’s awesome, it’s super cool, but there’s more to life, and you’ve gotta be able to look past that moment.”
One more shot
Marsh expects Burch to make his qualifying time this week. So does SwimMAC teammate and Olympic legend Ryan Lochte.
Even Burch is confident. But he’s content, too.
“If you don’t enjoy the pieces of the journey,” he said, “it’s harder to enjoy the peak. And then you’ve gotta come off that peak.
“You don’t stay up there.”
Whatever happens, Burch is much different now than he was back in that Beijing tattoo parlor.
Once he dreamed of medals and glory.
Now he realizes he already has it.