Nathan Adrian ripped it up in Indianapolis last weekend. And not just because his Speedo split down the back.
Under a half moon (or maybe it was just a quarter), Adrian beat Michael Phelps in the 100m freestyle at the Indianapolis Grand Prix. The next day, he also won the 50m free. And his time of 21.88 in the 50m free moved him into third in world rankings.
From Bremerton, Washington (also home to Olympic bobsledder Bree Schaaf and 2004 Olympic swimmers Dana and Tara Kirk), Adrian, 23, is now a strong favorite to make his second Olympic team.
At the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, he won a gold medal when Jason Lezak closed on Alain Bernard in the final lap of the men’s 4x100 meter freestyle relay. Adrian swam in the relay prelims so also earned the gold.
After watching the final from “the nosebleed section” of the stands, the race motivated him.
“They put the four fastest guys that we had at the time on that relay,” Adrian said, in a phone interview from California, where he is finishing his last two classes at the University of California-Berkeley. “I really wanted to be one of those four fastest guys moving into the next four years.”
He also wants to be one of the fastest guys in the individual freestyle sprints — the 50m and 100m races.
Coming off a successful but tough 2011, Adrian is “in a really good spot,” said his Cal coach David Durden.
In March 2011, Adrian led the Cal Bears to their first NCAA title in 31 years and also won his fourth and fifth NCAA individual titles in the 50 and 100 (he became the third Cal athletes to win the 100 free three years in a row, joining Olympic gold medalists Matt Biondi and Anthony Ervin).
With little time to rest, Adrian then went to the 2011 World Championships. He finished fourth in the 50m free, one-hundredth of a second out of third. In the 100m, he was sixth. And he anchored the two U.S. relay teams to a bronze in the 4x100m freestyle and gold in the 4x100m medley relays.
He flew home from China and four days later, he won his fifth national title — a gold in the 50m free.
He also won two golds in the relays at the 2009 World Championships.
Adrian takes his responsibility as a relay swimmer very seriously, and the bronze in the freestyle relay at Worlds “offered a lot of motivation training throughout the fall and winter season,” he said.
Greg Meehan, associate head coach at Cal, says that Adrian is a team guy.
“He could have one of the fastest splits in the world for his leg of the race, but if the relay wasn’t successful, he wouldn’t feel satisfaction because it is the bigger picture to him,” said Meehan.
Since the 4x100m freestyle relay was added to the Olympic program in 1964, the U.S. men have won it eight times (it was not held at either the 1976 or 1980 Olympics). They have won the 4x100m medley relay since its Olympic debut in 1960 (excluding the boycotted 1980 Games).
“Any time you are standing with three other guys with USA swimming caps, it’s very important to uphold that level of success, that tradition,” said Durden. “Nathan accepts that responsibility.”
Adrian began training for the 2012 Olympic Trials in the fall of 2008 — just a couple months after he made the 2008 Olympic team as 19-year-old “a dark horse.”
He was still a growing boy back then. He didn’t reach his altitude of 6’6” until the following year — two inches taller than Phelps, with 35 pounds more muscle.
Heading to the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in June, Adrian is no longer a dark horse. But he faces tough competition from a deep field of U.S. sprinters, including 2008 Olympians Cullen Jones and Garrett Weber-Gale, and 2000 Olympic gold medalist Anthony Ervin. In his comeback bid, Ervin finished third in the 50m in Indianapolis.
But the affable Adrian doesn’t see these guys as competition. He hopes a rising tide raises all boats.
“I hope everybody else goes fast because we need those splits in the relays,” he said, with his easy laugh.
He’s also focused more on his world ranking — based on fastest times in the world — than he is on beating U.S. teammates.
At the Indianapolis Grand Prix, he was aiming for a sub-48-second time in the 100m free (which would have put him in the top three in the world this year). With Phelps in the final, it was going to be a fast race.
But when Adrian bent over on the block to start … riiiiiip … the back of his suit give way.
“Glad the timers were paying attention to the strobe light and not what was going on on the blocks, #barebuttwasshowing,” he tweeted after the race.
A similar embarrassment befell sprinter Ricky Berens at the 2009 World Championships. “Glad someone joined me,” tweeted Berens.
No jokers offered Adrian a sewing kit, and he gave the suit — a FASTSKIN3 that he had worn before — back to Speedo to test, “to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Though a good sport about the wardrobe malfunction, Adrian was not happy about his time.
“There’s a pretty keen kinesthetic awareness moving through the water and moving through the water fast,” he explained. “But I wasn’t quite moving as fast as I wanted, and I think the suit had a little to do with that.”
His original plan was to use the Indianapolis meet as a dress rehearsal for the Olympic Trials. Except the “dress” part failed. He has now added one more meet to his schedule before Trials.
Meehan knows Adrian wants to be faster right now but says swimming is a lesson in patience.
“He’s done a great job since he got back from Worlds last summer,” said Meehan. “He’s done the things he needed to put himself in a position to be successful in London. Now he just has to be patient and let things take their course over the next 70-plus days to Trials.”
At Olympic Trials in Omaha in June, his goal is to qualify in both the 50m and 100m free, then also swim the finals of the 4x100 freestyle and medley relays in London.
And hopefully, not under a full moon.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.