LIMA, Peru — Five-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Nathan Adrian says that his success won’t be on his mind at the end of his life.
Maybe that would have been him some years ago. But not now, not since his latest race, this time is to beat cancer.
“It has completely changed my outlook. At the end of my time here on Earth, whenever that may be, I don’t think that the first thing on my mind is going to be how many gold medals I’ve had,” Adrian said before his first race at the Pan American Games in Lima.
“I’m actually very confident of that, whereas you know, maybe five or six years ago, my answer to that might’ve changed a little bit,” said Adrian. “So, my priorities are still competing and achieving at the highest level, certainly. But to take a deep breath, or to try to enjoy the company of those around me, that’s something that I’m trying to be aware of as much as possible.”
Adrian was diagnosed with testicular cancer in December.
“My reaction was probably what most people experience, a little bit of everything, you know: being scared, being a little bit angry, just questioning why? Like wondering if I had called my mom enough,” he said with a smile.
“All sorts of things, and it was just like a roller coaster, like I couldn’t really be control it, so I just kind of let it happen.”
Doctors told him the cancer had been caught early and he begun treatment. A month later, he underwent surgery, and he decided to continue to train for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
The 30-year-old recently earned silver in the 4×100-meter medley relay at the world swimming championships in Gwangju, South Korea. The silver medal felt like victory for Adrian, who was competing just months after the cancer diagnosis.
“I’m still in the process of conquering it,” he said. “Between a couple of surgeries, treatment and ongoing surveillance, here we are, a little more than six months later, and I just feel fortunate to compete.”
The 30-year-old said that he’s also looking forward to his first Pan American Games.
“I feel good. I left the world’s about a week ago, and then we’re here to compete again. … I’ve never been to a Pan American Games, so it’s really cool,” Adrian said near the tournament’s pool. “It’s a mini Olympics, so it’s a really special feeling.”
At the 2012 Olympics, Adrian won the 100-meter freestyle. Four years later, he earned bronze in Rio de Janeiro. He has four other Olympic gold medals as part of U.S. relay teams.
Adrian has been swimming since the age of 2, and competitively, since the age of 5. The decision to get back in the pool had the backing of his loved ones: among them, his wife, Hallie Ivester; his parents, Jim and Cecilia Adrian; and his siblings, Donella and Justin, who also swam competitively. Everyone is rooting for him back in his hometown of Bremerton, Washington, where a street was named after him.
“I think (my family) knew how important it was for me to get back to competing just for my own mental and emotional health,” he said. “I think for anybody who goes through an adverse health condition, the quicker you can get back to what makes you feel normal, what makes you feel good, the better.”
The process has been “really tough,” he said. “You get diagnosed, and then you don’t really know or have any information besides that you have cancer.”
He said the wait seems long until the scans are read because sometimes doctors are backed up.
“And it’s tough mentally and emotionally, because you’re just like: ‘man, maybe this is spread, or maybe we caught it early?”
Endurance is everything to a swimmer. But Adrian said he’s been in touch online with others who endured the same things as he did outside of the pool.
“A lot of my messaging this point has been for men out there: If you feel that something is going on, you have to go see a doctor,” he said. “A lot of guys wait. They feel something going on there, and then they wait until their treatment options are a little narrower and the prognosis isn’t quite as good. But if they get in there early, and early detection is key, hopefully everyone can live a little bit longer.”
Like any race, his goal is to beat cancer in the shortest amount of time possible. His other goals are also clear.
“In the future? Of course Tokyo 2020,” he said. “And then for life: probably spending a little more time at home with my wife and a little less time on the road training and competing, once this is all over.”