LOS ANGELES - U.S. swimmer Jessica Hardy didn’t exactly want to race other kids when she was a kid. She wanted to beat them.
When Hardy was 5, she asked her mom if she could race against other swimmers at her YMCA in Mission Viejo, Calif. Her mom wanted to make sure she heard her daughter correctly.
“You want to join the swim team?” she asked.
“Only if I can beat them,” Hardy responded.
Hardy developed a competitive drive early. She shared that competitive spirit with a group of kids in late-May at the Weingart YMCA Wellness & Aquatics Center in Los Angeles as part of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Team for Tomorrow program.
Started in 2008, Team for Tomorrow is a humanitarian relief fund through which America’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes participate in efforts to give back to local communities as well as people in need throughout the world.
Hardy’s involvement with the YMCA in her youth and her desire to work with young athletes prompted her to join the Team for Tomorrow effort.
“I’ve gotten involved with as much charity work as I can,” Hardy said. “Immediately I was intrigued by it. I was up for anything, but I think it was an obvious choice.”
Several athletes have been participating in Team for Tomorrow events recently. Gwen Jorgensen, a triathlete who qualified for the 2012 Games (pending nomination by the USOC), visited a YMCA in April, and U.S. water polo captain Tony Azevedo was at a YMCA on May 25. U.S. field hockey midfielder Rachel Dawson will spend Memorial Day at an event in California and Olympic bronze medalist hurdler David Oliver will be in Eugene, Ore., on June 1.
Hardy spent much of her time talking to the kids about her swimming and Olympic experiences, and, in addition, donated two laptop computers and cameras on behalf of the USOC to the YMCA.
“This is the same kind of community and hometown that nurtured my dreams,” she told the kids at the YMCA.
The children in attendance had a number of questions for Hardy. They asked about her diet, her goals for the London 2012 Olympic Games and how long can she hold her breath underwater, among other things.
She ton them she eats a ton of carbs before a meet and sticks to a diet mainly consisting of chicken, fruits and vegetables.
She doesn’t know how many medals she can win at the Games in London -- she has to qualify first, at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials June 25-July 2 in Omaha, Neb. -- but said she wanted to continue competing at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
And, by the way, Hardy said she can hold her breath for a long time underwater, but admits nerves get the better of her before every race.
“I am always nervous when I’m racing,” she said.
Hardy will try to qualify in three events at the Olympic Trials: the 100-meter breaststroke, the 100 freestyle and the 50 freestyle. She might compete in relay events as well.
“It’s going to be almost as competitive as the Olympics themselves,” Hardy said. “The Olympic Trials are the most competitive in the world. I’m going to be fully prepared mentally for it.”
Hardy qualified in four events for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, but she was not allowed to compete because she failed a drug test before the Games. She tested positive for Clenbuterol (which can be used to treat bronchial asthma but is a banned substance) and voluntarily left the 2008 team after the Olympic Trials.
The American Arbitration Association ruled that her positive test came from a contaminated supplement sample. The decision to keep her from competing eventually was overturned; the rule that banned her from competition was removed from Olympic regulations, but it created plenty of frustration.
Still, she forged ahead.
“I’ve had a successful past three years of competing,” Hardy said. “I’m confident and very motivated, but very grateful this time around because of the struggles that I went through after 2008. Overcoming that was so hard. I wasn’t even sure if I would be allowed to go to the Olympics until less than a year ago.”
And she focused on the positives with the kids at the YMCA.
Ever since her return, Hardy has been dominant.
She broke two world records -- in the 50 and 100 breaststroke -- in her first meet after returning from her suspension, in 2009. She then went on to break five more world records at the 2009 FINA World Cup Series.
Hardy won four gold medals at the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships. She won the gold medal in the 50 breaststroke and was on the silver-medal winning 4x100 freestyle relay team at the 2011 FINA World Championships.
Maintaining her world-class form wasn’t that challenging, she said. She used her suspension as motivation to return to the Olympic Trials in top form.
“I didn’t let myself get out of shape,” Hardy said. “I very much was more motivated as soon as I was allowed to compete again. It hasn’t been that hard. It’s made me work a lot harder.”