A string of standout results have put the the 6-foot-6 sprint swimmer on the verge of making the U.S. Olympic team, years before the 19-year-old was expected to compete for a spot.
Looking at a laptop at a Bremerton coffee shop, Nathan Adrian’s parents saw their son’s future arrive right before their eyes.
Cecilia and Jim Adrian didn’t need caffeine to feel the jolt.
Live results from a recent swim meet in Omaha, Neb., showed Nathan having won the 50-meter freestyle, beating all three 2004 Olympic medalists in the event — including Gary Hall, two-time Olympic champion at the distance.
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“It popped up and I was screaming, ‘Oh my gosh,’ ” said Cecilia Adrian. “It’s beyond our expectations.”
The victory announced Nathan Adrian’s arrival on swimming’s big stage, and just a few weeks before the Olympic trials, set to begin Sunday in the same Omaha pool. He’s just 19.
That’s a big splash, even for a guy who’s 6 feet 6.
That June night at Bremerton’s Olympic Coffee and Espresso (named for the mountains, not the Games), it came sooner than mom or dad imagined.
“I expect maybe in the London 2012 [Olympics], maybe that one when he is more mature,” said his mother. “This is still a little bit early. We are holding our breath.”
That their son is on the cusp of making the Olympic team four years early should not be surprising. He has a habit of trumping expectations.
When he was born, he weighed a remarkable 11 pounds, 8 ounces, his mom said. Right away, he slept through the night. He entered Montessori school at age 3, first grade at 5. He swam fast enough times to qualify for the Olympic trials as a teen at Bremerton High School, where he swam under coach Jay Benner and won the state 100-yard freestyle title as a freshman.
Most sprinters peak in their early- to mid-20s, which points to a bright future. Ten-time Olympic medalist Hall, 33, with whom Adrian trains as part of a stable of world-class sprinters at the Florida-based The Race Club, called him the next big thing in American sprint swimming.
“He is the kid right now,” Hall told The Associated Press. “He’s the one to watch.”
Hall, whose time of 22.20 seconds was second to Adrian’s 22.01 in Omaha, congratulated him afterward.
“It’s good to have someone like Gary Hall say ‘good job’ to you,” Adrian said.
A 2006 graduate of Bremerton High, Adrian swam as a college freshman at California, coached by sprint guru Mike Bottom. Bottom is the longtime coach for Hall and 2004 silver medalist Duje Draganja. He also coached Anthony Ervin, who tied Hall for Olympic gold in the 50 free in 2000.
Last summer, Bottom left his position as Cal co-coach to coach year-round at The Race Club, and longtime Cal coach Nort Thornton was retiring, leaving Adrian at loose ends. Bottom then invited Adrian to train in Florida for a year.
“When he told me that, there was no coach for Berkeley,” Adrian said in a recent interview. “I was just in turmoil. It was two weeks before school started and I had no idea who the coach was going to be. I was a little bit panicky, a little stressful.”
The benefits of training with some of the fastest swimmers on the planet — including club founder Hall; Draganja; 2004 Olympic bronze medalist George Bovell; and Olympian Mike Cavic from Serbia, among others — were obvious.
“I was kind of like, ‘Wow. I could be training with all these guys,’ ” Adrian said. “There’s no other training group that could be more conducive to fast swimming than this.”
But for his mother, a nurse with the Bremerton school district, and father, a retired nuclear engineer for the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Adrian’s choice to leave school and train all the way across the country was not so easy.
“Oh, boy,” Cecilia remembers thinking.
The decision was up to him. But, she said, “I know if we tell him no, years later we would regret it.”
They figured it would be only one year, that he’d gain some experience even if he didn’t make the Olympic team. Besides, they trusted Bottom. So in September, Adrian moved from California to the Florida Keys, obtaining an Olympic waiver from the NCAA to preserve three years of college eligibility when he returns to Cal.
“I just can’t describe it better than just living a dream,” said Adrian, who swam as a youngster for the Tacoma Swim Club.
Living arrangements for an Olympic hopeful at The Race Club aren’t all that different from that of an off-campus apartment in Berkeley. But it’s a fraternity with a undercurrent of competition, whether in swimming or spearfishing or playing popular video game “Halo.” Adrian shares a rented five-bedroom, two-bath house with three other Race Club guys and hardly any furniture.
Chairs are scarce, so Adrian and his roommates roll theirs into whoever’s room is hosting a movie that night. For a desk, someone put together a couple of sawhorses and a board. It costs a lot for air conditioning, so they tend to hibernate on one floor, rather than cool the whole house. Six mornings a week, all pile into Bovell’s Ford Explorer for the drive to practice.
“Four guys over 200 pounds,” said Adrian. “It’s definitely a race to call shotgun in the morning.”
Training with the elite club has paid off in a big way for the up-and-coming Adrian.
At the world short-course championships in April in Manchester, England — where swimmers competed in a 25-meter pool rather than the Olympics’ 50-meter pool — Adrian had a breakthrough, winning the 100 free. He beat two-time world champion Filippo Magnini and Draganja in the race.
“It’s kind of opened my eyes a little bit,” said Adrian. “My coach has always known, but I haven’t necessarily until now. Now I have a shot to make the individual events [in Beijing].”
At the trials, the top two in each event qualify for the Olympics, and coaches select more swimmers to race preliminaries and finals for relays. Adrian will be concentrating on the 50 and 100 free.
Bottom said Adrian’s victory in Manchester startled him not because he won, but how he did it.
“Nathan understood the race,” Bottom said. “When to use what stroke during the race to conserve energy, when to change his stroke to increase speed, and when to go into survival mode to get to the wall. He’s learning how to race people.”
Adrian orchestrated his semifinal swim to race just fast enough to qualify for the final, but slow enough so his seeded position would place him in a faster, outside lane. That meant taking a risk — letting two guys pass him in the last few strokes.
“It was brilliant,” said Bottom, who recently announced he would take the head coaching job at Michigan. “I’ve never had a guy I’ve coached do that.”
Neither of Adrian’s parents swam competitively. They brought their three kids to swim lessons so they wouldn’t panic in water — and to keep them out of trouble. All three wound up swimming competitively. In college, older brother Justin raced for Washington and sister Donella swam for Arizona State.
Adrian’s mother is Chinese. Cecilia Adrian was born and raised in Hong Kong, leaving in 1968 and meeting her future husband at the University of Portland. She has never been to mainland China and is ambivalent about the Olympic host.
“I do have some mixed feelings tied to how the government treats Tibet and the neighboring countries and totalitarianism, how suppressive it is,” she said. “It’s just difficult to swallow after you’ve been exposed to the democratic world.”
Suddenly, the Adrians are exploring travel options to Beijing. The four-year plan has become a six-week scramble. The future, turns out, is now.
“Looks pretty pricey, all those packages,” Cecilia said. “But it’s only money, right?”
Meri-Jo Borzilleri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org