Lolo Jones (USA) reacts after finishing fourth in the women's 100m hurdles final during the 2012 London Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium. (Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports)
LONDON -- Moments after Lolo Jones finished a tenth of a second short of a medal in the final of the 100-meter hurdles, she reflected on what could have been.
"You always think, 'What could I have done differently?' " Jones said. Four years after crashing into the second-to-last hurdle and missing a medal at the 2008 Olympics, Jones had finished fourth. "It was just heartbreaking," she said.
Plenty of other Americans can relate. Through nearly 13 full days at the London Olympics, the U.S. has had 18 fourth-place finishes. At the same point four years in Beijing, the U.S. had 20 fourth-place finishes.
In the medals race, the numbers are equally consistent from four years ago in Beijing. The United States is expected to finish atop the medals table, just as the Americans have done in the previous four Summer Games. China should edge the U.S. in the gold medal race, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China had the most golds.
Just outside the medals race, there exists an extra Olympic ring, a special ring of hell reserved for those a tenth of second, a fraction of an inch off the podium.
"Fourth seems like it would be nice," said U.S. cyclist Taylor Phinney who finished fourth in both of his events in London, "but it's the worst place you can imagine at the Olympic Games."
In an oft-cited study conducted nearly two decades ago, researchers found that bronze medalists were happier than those who won silver medals. Most silver medalists were disappointed because they fell short of the ultimate goal. Bronze medalists were grateful they didn't leave the Olympics empty-handed.
Shortly after missing out on a medal, Phinney tweeted at Jones after she lost: "Hey @lolojones, I know how it feels to get 4th place at the Olympics. Let's be friends. PS I have a bicycle. #wheels"
Jones joked that she doesn't follow losers.
"Totally joking," she said in an interview with USA TODAY Sports on Thursday. "Every time you experience something painful it just opens the door for you to kind of relate to somebody else when they're going through something tragic in their life.
"And not to say losing a medal is tragic. But the fact that he can relate to my pain is pretty cool. I definitely want to be his friend just for the bike, because I'm so tired of walking around that Olympic village. And then I'll unfollow him on Twitter after."
For the 22-year-old Phinney, a rising star of cycling, more medal opportunities are likely in his future. "If you were going to tell me that I got a fourth at the Olympic Games twice two months ago, I'd have been like, 'Damn, that's impressive.' Now that I'm here, and I'm actually the guy getting fourth place, that's nice. But it was so close, s-o-o-o close.''
U.S. rowers also had to deal with a double dose of disappointment, albeit on the same day. Two American boats pushed for medals and came away with four-place finishes - by a combined half second. Sarah Zelenka and Sara Hendershot held second place for much of the women's pairs final before Australia and New Zealand passed them in the end. New Zealand got them by 0.2. Then U.S. men's eight boat lost in opposite fashion. They recovered from a slow start to attempt a late takeover. But Great Britain held on by 0.3.
Fourth place also can destroy an athlete.
American sprinter Tyson Gay sobbed after his fourth-place finish in the 100. Tears from a man who had given everything he had, only to find it was not enough. One-hundredth of a second separated Gay from teammate and bronze medal winner Justin Gatlin.
"I just ran with all my heart," Gay said. "There was nothing left in the tank. I didn't get a medal but I gave it my all."
Gay cannot afford to linger in his anguish. He runs third in the men's 4x100 relay on Saturday, the day after his 30th birthday, and the U.S. will try to outrun the fastest man in the world, Jamaica's Usain Bolt.
"It's no secret Usain Bolt is a phenomenal sprinter," Gay said. "But [Bolt] haven't seen this U.S. stick team. I'm going to go out there and leave my hip, my hamstrings, and everything else for my team."
Still, his shot at Olympic glory in the 100 is gone. Unlike in pro or college sports, there's no wait 'til next year. For Olympians, the wait is four long years. For many like Gay, age and injury may put the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro well out of reach.
At least U.S. fencer Mariel Zagunis will always have the opening ceremony (and the two golds from previous Olympics.) After being selected to carry the American flag into opening ceremony, Zagunis lost her focus and lost a shot at a medal in sabre, finishing fourth.
In the women's triathlon, after swimming, biking and running about 34 miles, Sarah Groff gave two hours of all she had. While biking she said she "rode over" a Polish entrant who had fallen in front of her. Still, she ended up 10 seconds behind the bronze medalist. "There were tears," she said. "Fourth is the worst position."
A British bookstore owner named David Mitchell hopes to spread a little fourth-place cheer. He's making medals for fourth-place finishers so they have something to show for their accomplishment. Each medal has an athlete's name and event. The other side reads: "In Recognition of your 4th Place Olympic Games 2012." He plans to mail his medals to various Olympians.
But would athletes want that piece of pewter? "I hope they don't find it insulting," Mitchell told the BBC. "Because it's meant seriously and supportively."
A nice gesture, but can it mend broken hearts? Jones said she plans to compete for a spot in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, but then again ...
"Now that I've had two bittersweet Olympics, I'm like, 'Man, I don't know. Every time I come here, I get burned.'"