What's it like to be within a hairs-breadth of your dream? "I could give the P.C. answer: 'Oh, it's wonderful just to be here!'" says Tamiko Nash, first runner-up in the 2006 Miss USA pageant. "But I competed to win. It was painfully clear to anyone who watched that I was disappointed. And it was probably more disappointing than if I had been eliminated in an earlier round, because I was so close and yet so far away."
Seven months later, Nash got word from pageant executives that she might claim the title after all—Miss USA Tara Conner had been caught using illicit drugs. Says Nash: "I was filled with excitement. But then after a week of not knowing what would happen, I got very angry. Here I was, up against Tara again!" Conner was granted a second chance, while Nash watched the crown slip out of reach for the second time.
High-level competitors risk feeling crushed when they don't nab the one prize that's motivated them for years, says Steven Ungerleider, a sports psychologist and the author of Mental Training for Peak Performance. "I know an Olympic swimmer who recently said, 'Remember that race in Barcelona in 1992? I should have kicked her butt!' It's a lingering, nagging pain that sits in the back of their consciousness. It doesn't necessarily take over their lives, but it simmers under the surface, no matter how much more they've accomplished."