March 4, 2009
By Dean Caparaz '90, Cal Athletic Media Relations
Editor's note: The following feature appears in the winter 2009 issue of the Cal Sports Quarterly.
Nathan Adrian needed some time away from Berkeley.
As freshman swimmer on the 2006-07 California men's swimming & diving team, Adrian earned All-America honors in the 100-yard freestyle, as well as the 200 and 800 free relays, in his first year with the Bears. With an excellent chance to gain a spot on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, he believed he needed to spend the following year training full time to have a good shot of realizing his dream.
So, Adrian left school to work with other elite-level swimmers and indeed earned a place on the U.S. squad by finishing fourth in the 100-meter freestyle in a time of 48.46 at the Olympic Trials last summer. The result meant that he would be a member of the U.S. 4x100 relay at the Beijing Games.
At the Olympics, Adrian led off the American foursome in the qualifying heat of the relay. He posted a split of 48.82 over the first 100 meters, and his U.S. relay set a then-world record time of 3:12.23, putting Michael Phelps and Adrian's other U.S. teammates in a good position for their exciting gold-medal victory.
Although he was in the pool for the prelims, Adrian watched the final from a bit farther away.
"It was incredible," Adrian said. "The entire Olympics, if not the world, saw that race. I saw it in person, but in the nosebleed section. They would rotate where people would go, and that morning we were at the very top, unfortunately. But it didn't take away from energy we felt that race and entire day. Afterwards I couldn't feel anything. I can still feel the excitement now."
For those who don't remember the race, American Jason Lezak overcame a seemingly insurmountable deficit on the final lap to edge the French team at the wall to keep Phelps' pursuit at perfection intact.
Adrian didn't get to stand on the medal podium with his winning teammates but got the same reward.
"We still had our medals," Adrian said.
Once his Olympic performance was complete, the 19-year-old the Bremerton, Wash., product spent time in Beijing watching the rest of the swimming events and other sports, as well as sightseeing and shopping. He also spent time with his family.
Adrian's mother, Cecilia, is from Hong Kong, but emigrated before Hong Kong returned to China and had never been to the mainland before. The Adrians don't have much family left in China, as most of the Chinese members of the family moved to an area of Canada four hours away from Bremerton. But he and his family were able to spend some time with one relative in Beijing.
"The trip meant a lot to her," Adrian said of this mother. "She got to see one of my cousins, her nephew, and spent time with him. She really enjoyed seeing China and was always looking for an excuse to go. What better time to see it then in the Olympics? I'm glad I got to see my cousin. It had been years and years, since grade school since I was able to see him."
He may have had a few more fans cheering for him in Beijing because he's half Chinese, but Adrian definitely noticed increased adulation in Singapore, where the U.S. Olympic swim team trained before it left for China.
"Singapore was really cool," he said. "They treated me really well and were well-educated to the fact I was half Chinese. That was fun."
His experiences in Beijing included growing close to his relay teammates Matt Grevers, a former NCAA champion from Northwestern, and Ben Wildman-Tobriner, a former Stanford star, whom he had previously known as college rivals and competitors for spots on the U.S. team.
"They're a little older, but they're nice guys," Adrian said. "We got along well. We were hanging around a lot and worked together a lot on the relay."
Adrian and the U.S. swimmers also spent time with the U.S. men's basketball team.
"The basketball guys came out and watched us swim," Adrian said. "We go to know some of them real well. We ate lunch with them and saw them play Germany.
"The ones who hung out with us a lot were Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Jason Kidd. They enjoyed seeing what Michael [Phelps] did. I was impressed with how they dealt with fans. They were very, very graceful with how they dealt with the publicity that they got."
Once his Beijing excursion was done, Adrian flew back to Berkeley. He knew he was coming back to a slightly different landscape at Cal than what he remembered from his freshman year. When Adrian left to train for Beijing, Nort Thornton was still his head coach, but upon his return, David Durden was overseeing the program.
"I chose Cal for good reasons," he said. "The City, the fact that water's right around here and being from the West Coast, those are all parts of it. I had spoken with Dave a little bit but not a lot. I heard about him from the guys, and they all liked him. Obviously, Dave was very successful at Maryland and Auburn. If there's any time to experience a transition, right after the Olympics is a good time."
Durden first spoke to Adrian when he got the job in the fall of 2007.
"I think it was a good thing for him to be away," Durden said, "not only for his Olympic quest and qualifying for that team, but I think maybe missing a little bit of this environment, missing Cal and being out of the routine of a student-athlete. He appreciated it that much more when he got back here."
Following the Games, Adrian spent almost five weeks out of the pool before resuming his training again.
"I'm finally back in the swing of things in college," he said after swimming in his first competition of the 2008-09 season, the Pacific Invitational, on Oct. 17. "After the Olympics, I didn't touch the water again until maybe Oct. 1. It was not really that difficult - by then I was mentally recharged, which was great. A lot of times coaches force you into it, but this time I adapted well.
"I'm excited about swimming again. I went through a year period where swimming was my life and an intense two-month period where swimming was my life. It was great to kick back from that mentality and refocus on having school as a priority and having swimming still right up there."