INDIANAPOLIS — Nathan Adrian was the oldest guy in the pool tonight. But the 28-year-old Olympian was also the fastest.
At the Phillips 66 National Championships — part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast — Adrian came from behind and out-touched Caeleb Dressel, 20, in the men’s 100-meter freestyle race. Dressel is the man most likely to take over the freestyle sprint reins once Adrian retires. If Adrian ever retires.
Adrian clocked 47.96 to Dressel’s 47.97 — the third and fourth fastest times in the 100 free so far this year. At the Olympic Games Rio 2016, Adrian won a bronze medal in the 100 free in 47.85.
“I feel good-ish,” said Adrian, when asked about the fast time. “I love looking up on the board and seeing a 47.”
He’s equally happy about the men’s team right now. When told it was the first time that two men have gone under 48 seconds in the 100 free at a U.S. championships, Adrian replied, “That’s what’s up! Let’s go. Team USA, man!”
“Not only that, 48.4 is the fastest time that it’s takes to make a relay,” he added, referring to the top six finishers in the 100 free (top six will likely qualify for the world championship team). “We’re in a good place. For so long, I had to answer all these dumb questions about what happened to American sprinting. I don’t have to answer those questions anymore, so I'm happy about that.”
Both Adrian and Dressel qualified for the 2017 FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, in July. It will be Adrian’s fifth trip to long-course world championships. The Cal-Berkeley grad has won nine world championship medals, including five gold medals.
This will be Dressel’s first trip to world championships. He won a gold medal in the 100 free at junior worlds in 2013. Townley Haas (third) and Zachary Apple (fourth) will also likely qualify for the freestyle relay team in Budapest, as well as fifth- and sixth-place finishers, Michael Chadwick and Blake Pieroni.
A five-time Olympic gold medalist with eight medals total, Adrian has seen the ups and downs of men’s freestyle sprinting in the U.S. in the past decade or so. Since 2009, he has been almost unbeatable in the freestyle sprints (both 50 and 100-meters). He’s won 14 of a possible 17 long-course titles. When he won his first national titles in 2009, Dressel was in middle school.
Ironically, in 2009, Adrian was Dressel’s age, and nationals were also held in Indianapolis. He won both the 100 and 50-meter freestyle titles that year and qualified for his first world championship team.
Even though Adrian was the oldest guy in the 100 final by a long shot (six years older than the next oldest guys), experience is helping him stay ahead of youth. In the 100 final, he touched the wall at 50 meters in sixth place, and it appeared as if he might be passing the torch to Dressel, or one of the other young Olympians in the race (six of the eight guys in the final won gold medals in Rio).
But then Adrian found another gear in the home stretch.
“That’s something that comes through practice,” he said. “I didn’t know where [the others] were, and if I had looked around, I probably would have lost it. You just have to try to keep a good line, touch the wall, and then figure out what place you got.”
Adrian has also modified his training, as well as his approach to the 100.
“The secret now is I’ve always done the thing where you go out fast and try to bring it home,” he explained. “Now I have the back half. Maybe in the next four weeks, we can figure out how to be out in 22 [seconds] mid-to-high again.”
His only concession to age is a modification in his training. He can no longer handle the same workload that he did when he was Dressel’s age. Back then, he could have “a killer practice and come back the next day and do it all over again.” Now killer workouts bury him for a couple of days.
“So there’s a lot of management of that going on,” he said. “It’s so much fun to try to learn.”
Don’t look for Adrian to swim off into the Indiana sunset any time soon. He cited inspiration from teammate Anthony Ervin, who won the 50-meter freestyle Olympic gold medal at age 35 last summer.
“Tony proved that you can go really fast all the way into your mid 30s, so the sky’s the limit,” said Adrian, who became engaged in May and plans to marry girlfriend Hallie Ivester in the summer or fall of 2018.
“We’re definitely going through Tokyo,” said Adrian, then added that if Los Angeles is chosen for the 2024 Games, he will “try to hop on that relay.”
“It’ll probably take a 47 high to make it,” he said with a laugh. “So I’m still going to have to be going 47s by then.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.