He’ll head to Rio this August hoping to become the first American to win the 100 freestyle in back-to-back Olympics since 1928.
In the winter of 2009, a year removed from winning his first Olympic medal with the 4X100-meter freestyle relay team at the Beijing Olympics, Nathan Adrian came home to his parents’ house in Bremerton for the Christmas holidays.
Then a sophomore at Cal, Adrian was just scratching the surface of the immense potential he’d shown as a swimmer from the time he was in middle school, swimming against top-caliber talent with the Tacoma Swim Club.
Cal coach Dave Durden had sent his swimmers home for the Christmas break with prescribed daily workouts they were supposed to complete at their local pools. Industrious as ever, Adrian was determined to execute his coach’s instructions precisely and return to school in top physical shape.
Nathan Adrian file
Height, weight: 6-6, 225
Events: 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle, 4×100 freestyle relay
Beijing 2008: Gold in 4×100 free relay
London 2012: Gold in 100 free, 4×100 medley relay; silver in 4×100 free relay
Personal: Has one sister, Donella, and one brother, Justin. … His mother was raised in Hong Kong and his father in Indiana, but they met in Portland. … Has a street named after him in Bremerton.
Twitter handle: @Nathangadrian
Mother Nature had other plans. On Adrian’s second day home, Bremerton had a rare snow day. When he awoke to head to the pool at dawn that morning, Adrian realized there was no way the family’s Toyota Prius would be able to slog through the snow to get him to the pool.
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So, much to the surprise of his parents, Jim and Cecilia Adrian, Nathan pulled on his coat and marched out the door before the sun came up, determined to walk the two miles to the pool just so he could get his workout in.
Unfortunately for Nathan, “nobody else could get to the pool either,” Jim says, laughing. “It wasn’t open. He got his exercise in, but it wasn’t quite what his coach had in mind. It must have been 25 degrees out.”
That relentlessness has always set Adrian apart.
Now 27, Adrian is no longer the precocious rookie Olympian he was in 2008, nor the underdog he was at the London Olympics in 2012. He qualified for his third Olympic games in the 50 and 100 freestyle at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Neb., in June, clocking a 47.72 in the 100 freestyle that marked the second-fastest time in the world this year. He’ll head to Rio this week hoping to become the first American to win the 100 freestyle in back-to-back Olympics since 1928.
In a sport with a constant stream of young talent jostling with the veterans for spots on the Olympic team, Adrian has shown remarkable staying power.
“He’s been on this stage for 12 years now, and that’s very rare, especially for a sprinter,” said Jesse Stipek, a volunteer assistant swim coach at Arizona who was teammates with Adrian during their days on the Tacoma Swim Club, and remains one of the Olympian’s best friends. “He’s been dominant in his events the past 12 years, and that’s been impressive.”
The secret to Adrian’s success isn’t very secret at all. His dominance comes from his consistency and that work ethic.
Adrian has an intimate understanding of his body. He knows what it needs to perform at its best, and he’s willing to sacrifice to keep himself in peak condition. He has been known to be meticulous about his training regimen, and his competitiveness is on another level.
“He’s not interested in being mediocre. He’s always been extremely hyper competitive,” Stipek said. “His innate ability to always get his hand on the wall and rise above everyone else is amazing. He’s always been extremely prepared.”
Swimming is not normally thought of as the sort of sport that requires dedicated film study, but that’s what Nathan does before races. He studies up on his opponents and takes note of their race style and strategy.
Stipek says that’s one of the reasons Nathan managed to beat heavily favored Australian James Magnussen by one-hundredth of a second in the 100 freestyle at the 2012 London Olympics.
“He’s such a student of the sport that he knew how everyone else would swim in that race, and he knew exactly what he had to do,” Stipek said. “I remember watching that race in the stands (in London) and thinking, ‘He could actually win.’ ”
Beating Magnussen put Nathan on the map.
When he returned home to Bremerton that summer, he found that he’d become an overnight celebrity.
In between a steady barrage of media interviews all over the country, Nathan was asked to make numerous guest appearances at local events or store openings, do autograph signings and throw out the first pitch at local baseball games.
He’s handled his fame well, his parents say, but at his core, Nathan is a private, laid-back guy who doesn’t know how to be complacent and is always looking for ways to make himself better.
For instance, he added yoga to his training routine this year as a way to help his body recover from workouts, and to get himself to relax.
From Nathan’s perspective, his love for swimming is not rooted in any desire to win certain medals or set specific records, it’s “just about improvement,” he says.
Even after more than a decade in the sport, Nathan has never shied away from going back to the basics and honing in on miniscule details to try to perfect certain components of his form.
He and Durden worked extensively on his dive form this year, and Nathan thinks it’s paid off.
“We’ve done some things in the weight room that have helped, working on entry and how we change momentum as we enter the water, and to increase the efficiency of my strokes,” Nathan said.
He might have four Olympic medals — three gold and one silver — but at his core, Nathan is still the same guy who would rather walk through a snowstorm to get to the pool than miss a workout.
It doesn’t matter who else is in the lane on either side of him. When he gets on the starting block in Rio, Nathan’s biggest opponent will be himself. That’s how he’s always approached swimming and his quest for success in the sport.
“It’s about being the best I can possibly be. It’s never about showing that I’m the best and trying to be No. 1,” Nathan said. “It’s about getting better.”