Almost Famous

With the London Olympics a year away, Nathan Adrian is on the edge of glory. And he's the last to know it.

DIVE
Simone Anne Lang/Staff

Editor: Hey, we need to run a feature soon. Got any ideas?

Katie: I just realized we’ve never written one on Nathan Adrian. How could that be? The guy’s one of the most decorated athletes in Cal history. I’m looking at his bio right now: 11 national championships, seven conference records, two American records, one world record and a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.

He’s a swimming legend. There’s got to be a story somewhere in there.

Editor: All yours.

***

Editor: So how’d the interview with Adrian go?

Katie: He’s a cool guy and very well-spoken. Definitely one of the nicest people I’ve ever interviewed. But I’m a little worried about my angle, though.

Editor: What do you mean?

Katie: He’s too normal. If he has a personality quirk, it’s that he’s too nice. He asked me if it was OK that he wore sunglasses during the interview, for crying out loud.

It’s funny. Your first thought when you meet him is: This guy is a stud. He looks manufactured, not born. Mile-long legs, big broad shoulders. He’s worried about getting endorsement deals, but he shouldn’t be.

And then you notice Adrian’s smile. He has one of those whole-face-crinkles-up grins that makes everyone else happy, too. It makes you forget that you’re in the presence of the one of the preeminent sprinters in the world — a guy who won a gold medal at his first-ever Olympic games. Adrian’s this big, sleepy cougar. He looks relaxed sitting at the pool deck, but there’s coiled strength below the surface.

Which is all well and good but the problem — story-wise — is that Adrian has no idea of how brilliant he is. He said none of his records mean anything because he’s “never set any substantial records long course, and long course is what the world cares about.”

It’s impossible to get a self-congratulatory quote of out him. He hates talking about personal achievements. I asked him about 10 different ways how it feels to be one of the fastest swimmers in the world, and he gave answers to completely different questions. He told me he “took pride in being able to rise to the occasion” and talked about how much he loves the Cal swim team.

You can’t attribute it to sudden success either. Adrian’s had a long time to settle into being a champion. He was one of the most highly recruited kids coming out of high school (but he says he was only the third- or fourth-best recruit in the nation that year out of a small pool … right).

His sophomore year at Cal, he set two American records while winning the national championship in the 50 and the 100 free. The next year, he won the 100 free title again, but called it a “sloppy” year because he didn’t win the 50, too.

Even the humble hero usually acknowledges some benchmark accomplishments. On a scale of one to Michael Phelps, Adrian is a seven or an eight with the potential for much more.

And he has no clue.

***

Editor: What about his swimming style? Is there an angle there?

Katie: I’m thinking about that. There’s this video we should link to on the website: the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine. The announcer talks the whole time about Cesar Cielo, the 50 free world record holder.

Before the race starts, he says, “If it was 60, 70 meters, I think that Adrian might have a chance, but this guy has so much speed, so much power.”

The starting beep goes off a second later, and Adrian and Cielo hit the water at the same time. They cut the blue glass of the pool with big, smooth sweeps of their arms. It’s the 50, so there’s no time to think. Like Adrian says, “You can’t be looking at anyone else. You don’t have time to breathe.”

It’s all over in seconds. The announcer shouts, “Cielo looks like he’s just ahead” as the swimmers’ hands hit the wall.

Adrian comes up, and you see him look up and down the scoreboard as he learns what everyone else in the stands already knows. The announcer’s voice is ringing with shock as he says: “Nathan Adrian just beat the fastest swimmer in history!”

Fantastic, right? I love that race, because it’s a perfect transition point in Nathan’s life. He is so close to being a household name (and I’m betting he will be after the 2012 Olympics). He’s right on the cusp on greatness but, at least for now, he’s still sneaking up on people.

***

Editor: Now we’re onto something. Can you integrate that with his trip to the Beijing Olympics?

Katie: I asked Adrian for his favorite memory from Beijing and his answer was: “Shoot, I should probably figure that stuff out.” The Olympics are the zenith of a swimmer’s career, and Nathan couldn’t come up with a single highlight.

I could use that angle to reveal something about his personality, though. He has one quote: “Until you see it on TV, it’s just another meet. You go to the ready room, there’s a bunch of international guys, you walk out onto the pool. Every pool’s different, but it’s the same water.”

That’s his outlook right there. Some people might think it’s sad that Nathan thought the Olympics were like any other meet. I love it. His life is one long, happy adventure. Nothing stands out, because everything is good.

That’s what people love about him. He’s the most beloved man on the swim team. Every person who passed us during the interview stopped to chat with him, and his phone was dinging with texts constantly.

I think in order to live with that determined, sustained joy, you have a keen sense of the temporality of life — that nothing lasts forever so you’ve got to enjoy every second. That’s why swimming is so powerful for Adrian. In his words, it’s “not necessarily like track where you’ve met where the epitome of human potential is. There’s just so, so much more left to give and left to take in swimming.”

I asked him if he thinks he has a time in the pool he could reach someday. An end-all, be-all best time.

“I’m sure there will be one and there is one, but I don’t want to know it,” he said. “If I fall short, then I haven’t reached my potential, and if I get it, there’s nowhere to go from there.

“It’s like knowing when you’re going to die.”

***

Editor: Now that’s good stuff. You can work with that. Do you have an anecdote you can lead with?

Katie: I’ve got a great one. We talked about Risk, the board game. It was his favorite growing up. His strategy was thus:

“You’ve got to start with the smaller boosters. Australia, South America. I’d usually move to Africa if I had South America because there was only four places you had to win, now that I’m thinking about it.”

And the funniest part of the story is that when Adrian was at the Olympic Village, everyone was playing Risk. Of all the games in the world, they were playing his childhood favorite. So what does he do?

“I didn’t let myself start because I knew how I would get and I knew I’d probably have misplaced bad feelings towards certain people,” he says. “I didn’t want to start on the wrong foot in my first national team experience.”

He’s the next big thing in American swimming, but still gets heated over board games. He tweets about missing his roommates and watching chick flicks. With Adrian, it’s all about the dichotomy between his competitive drive in the pool and his puppy dog likability out of it. Ultimately, that’s what his story boils down to.

Editor: That’s a good place to start.