Kathleen Hersey (USA) reacts after winning a womens 200m butterfly heat during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Aquatics Centre. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
As the sun began to set Wednesday evening, the watch party began.
It was held at a house in Sandy Springs in honor of Olympian - and longtime Metro Atlantan - Kathleen Hersey. Balloons hung from the mailbox, and welcome signs clung to the door, one of which featured a giant red prohibition circle with the word "SPOILER" written inside.
"I'm the one that put the spoiler-free zone on the front door," said the party's host, Marist School assistant swim coach Matt Murphy. He provided his guests snacks, a comfy couch, and a giant projector screen on which to watch Hersey in the finals of the 200-meter butterfly - just as long as no one spoiled the ending to the race.
It was a funny sign - and a necessary one to keep the guests in suspense. But it certainly wasn't necessary to get them to show up.
All that took was the young woman whose Olympic appearance they were celebrating.
Kathleen Hersey was born in Athens, Ga. and raised just north of Atlanta. Most of the three dozen party guests had known Hersey at some point during her high school career at Marist. She graduated in 2008, right before heading off to Beijing for her first Olympic Games.
In her finals years at Marist, Hersey was fast becoming a national swimming star; she set American high school records in the 100-yard butterfly and 200-yard individual medley. But to those who competed with or coached her, she remained the plucky, bubbly teenager who gave her all at every meet and cheered on her teammates as hard as she swam.
"She was always about the team," said Marist coach Terry Blish. "You can see that now with the Olympic team, too."
Hersey amazed them all, with not just her swimming but her spirit. Friends say she was so clearly a product of her parents; they recall her father Brian as her constant swimming support system, cheering Kathleen on from the wheelchair he has needed since suffering a spinal cord aneurysm in the 1980s. As for mother Regina? One Marist parent described her as "the most elegant woman I have ever seen."
Talk to Hersey today, and she'll tell you very quickly that her mother is on her mind. This past winter, Regina began a long battle with cancer that began in her colon and then spread to her liver and lower back. Kathleen made it home from college on January 2nd to be with her mother; Regina passed away January 4th.
When I spoke with the swimmer back in May, she talked about the ordeal with composure and conviction. "It's been such a wonderful experience," Hersey said, "and that's not what you would think. You get a sense of the community that you're a part of, and the swimming community has such a unique bond."
At the Marist watch party, her old coaches picked up on that composure, talking about how well Hersey carried herself in interviews and admiring her enthusiasm - the kind of enthusiasm that led her to direct the USA Swimming "Call Me Maybe" lip-synch during Olympic training. Murphy said he even noticed a difference in the water.
"I've never seen her swim like this before," he said, almost in awe. "She's different."
Different, indeed. After barely making the U.S. Olympic team, Hersey turned a whole lot of heads by finishing first in the world in both the qualifying and semifinal rounds on Tuesday. She said afterwards she felt as if her mother was swimming with her, and she made sure to mention in interviews how much those trying times were now motivating her. Watching the finals, fans may have assumed Hersey was the favorite to win because of her lane position, but her appearance there was a major shock. Check out the video of her semifinal heat, and listen to the cheerful surprise in the announcers' tone at the end, describing how Hersey could potentially "pull an upset" and exclaiming, "Maybe she is a medal threat!"
By the time Wednesday night rolled around, much of the world had learned that Hersey would, in fact, threaten for a medal but not win one. She finished fourth in the finals, a finish that probably would have been a lot less disappointing had she not swam so well in the rounds before. At race's end, Hersey could not hide the letdown in her eyes; her post-race interview with 11Alive's Karyn Greer is heart-rending because, as honest and gracious as Hersey is during the interview, she is also so clearly feeling the pain - as she says, "The weight of this year is definitely falling hard right now."
At the watch party, roughly half the people knew the results beforehand, and the other half didn't. But it didn't really matter. Each person who had known Hersey beforehand felt obligated to support her now; they would respond to her spirit by cheering and clapping throughout her final race, even if some already knew how she would ultimately finish.
A few minutes after the race aired on NBC, I reported live from the watch party on our sister channel, myATLtv. I interviewed Coach Blish from Marist, and during the interview, he turned right to the camera to address his former star.
"We are so proud of you, Kathleen," Blish said. "You are the best in our eyes. We know what you mean to that team over there and how much you inspire others... You give it to every team you're on, and we are so proud of you; we can't begin to describe it. Thank you so much for a great experience. You are Number One in our book and always in our hearts, and we know some angels are smiling at you now."
And after pouring out so many words, Blish closed with three simple ones, perhaps all that was left to say to a young woman who had grown up so much in the past year and had swam her heart out in London:
"Great job, girl."