Olympic swimmer Nathan Adrian transforms himself
Bremerton's Nathan Adrian, always a team-first swimmer on relays, now must get greedy for individual gold in London.
Special to The Seattle Times
Nathan Adrian fileEvents: 100 freestyle, 4x100 freestyle relay
Washington tie: Hometown is Bremerton
Key dates: Adrian competes in the 4x100 relay on Sunday and then the 100 free starting Tuesday.
Why we care: Adrian looks to win another gold medal. He won gold in 2008 at Beijing despite not swimming in the final heat of the 4x100 relay.
Bremerton native Nathan Adrian is as curious as anybody about the makeup of the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team. Rubbing elbows with LeBron James during the 2008 Olympic Games while swimming for Team USA will do that.
But then, Adrian has always been a team kind of guy. Almost to a fault.
He earned a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in the 400-meter freestyle relay, though he swam only in the preliminaries. You might recall the dramatic final — Jason Lezak anchored in an unforgettable finish to overtake France. Without Adrian contributing to a world-record time in prelims or Lezak swimming the split of his life in the final, Michael Phelps would have been shy of his eventual eight gold medals.
A classic team effort from Adrian, a classic team guy.
Now, at age 23 and a year removed from helping California win the NCAA men's swimming title, Adrian is transforming himself into more of an individual racer.
"Actually that's been a pretty big adjustment for me," said Adrian, who qualified for the London Olympics by winning the 100 freestyle at the U.S. Olympic trials. "From moving to swimming at a university that's bigger than yourself to ultimately swimming for yourself at something like Olympic trials."
The day after his last race at the trials in Omaha, Neb., Adrian ate frozen yogurt from a cup while marveling at Dara Torres. The 45-year-old tried to make her sixth Olympic team by challenging swimmers two decades younger in the 50 free final. She fell just short.
Adrian can relate. He missed qualifying in his specialty, the 50 free, last month by finishing third to Anthony Ervin and Cullen Jones.
Like Adrian, Jones qualified for his second trip to the Olympics. But Adrian is hardly holding a grudge against the 28-year-old, who also swam with Adrian in the gold-medal relay in Beijing.
"If I took one thing away from getting beat, it was, 'Hey, these guys are improving as they get older,' " Adrian said. "I can't wait 'til I experience that."
Such praise for competitors makes Adrian special, according to Cal coach Dave Durden. That's why Adrian will not only swim the 100 free at the Olympics but will be considered a valuable leg of the U.S. 400-free relay team.
"The thing that he talks about more is that 400 free relay," said Durden, who trained Adrian in Berkeley after he graduated. "He's going to do great in that 100 individually, but the thing he's looking forward to the most is stepping behind the blocks with three other guys, and they're going to go chase."
Justin Adrian, Nathan's older brother by six years, believes that enthusiasm for team dates back to his days with the Tacoma Swim Club. Justin recalls the brothers anchoring competing relays at a regional meet. Nathan was 14 at the time.
"You could tell that big things were coming," said Justin Adrian, remembering the camaraderie of Adrian and his teammates. "They just had fun. They all had a love for the sport."
All of Nathan Adrian's medals at world championships — three golds and a bronze — have come in relays. But don't get the idea he's content with that. The lingering memory Adrian took from Beijing was other U.S. swimmers, such as Phelps and Lezak, earning individual medals.
Adrian wants to join that club.
"Absolutely. That is his goal," said his mother, Cecilia, a nurse in the Bremerton School District. "In '08, that was a moment when he was going for a ride, so to speak. It was so unexpected for us, too, that he made the team."
Adrian left Cal to train with Gary Hall Jr., one of the world's premier sprinters, in the Florida Keys leading up to the '08 trials. Adrian making the U.S. team in '08 didn't surprise Hall, a three-time Olympian and five-time gold medalist who now lives in Seattle.
"You can see when somebody has it, whatever that is," said Hall. "Nathan is definitely one of those guys that stood out, even as a very young and upcoming swimmer that had yet to prove himself. You knew he was going to be this good, and he has proved that now."
Jim and Cecilia Adrian were relieved when their son decided to return to Cal after the '08 Olympics and finish his degree in public health.
"I put so much work into it. I couldn't just throw away my GPA and coast," Nathan Adrian said.
But graduate school, once a strong consideration, will have to wait. His biggest challenge in London is James Magnussen, 21, of Australia. Magnussen won gold in the 100 free at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai.
"The man everyone is chasing right now is Magnussen," Durden said. "Nathan knows that and wants to go chase him."
Watching Torres, Ervin and Lezak, now 37, makes Adrian realize his best may be ahead.
"I love the fact that I'm so young," he said. "I love the fact that I still have so much upside. There are so many things I can do, train for and try to get better."