Nathan Adrian smiles at Swimming Winter National Championships on Nov. 29, 2018 in Greensboro, N.C.
NEW YORK -- It’s a glorious spring day at Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, and Nathan Adrian is as buoyant as the blooming May foliage.
He’s warming to a favorite topic: why all kids should learn to swim.
“Think about a child and how many things they feel like they truly own,” said Adrian, who took to the pool at age 2. “You can say, ‘Do you remember two weeks ago when you wouldn’t even jump in the pool? Now we have to force you out of the pool at the end of your lesson. That’s what practice and hard work will do.’”
The three-time Olympian is in town for the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash tour, highlighting the many benefits of the sport and helping enroll kids in programs with over 1,000 local partners nationwide. The effort brings his passion to the surface.
“The statistics are pretty surprising: 64 percent of African-American children don’t know how to swim, 45 percent of Hispanic children don’t know how to swim and 40 percent of Caucasian children don’t know how to swim,” he said.
“If your parents don’t know how to swim, there’s only a 13 percent chance that you will,” he added. “That’s a cycle we need to break. The inverse of that is also true, in that if your parents know how to swim, you probably will.”
The trip to New York comes just days after a TYR Pro Swim Series meet in Bloomington, Indiana, where Adrian swam to third- and fourth-place finishes, respectively, in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events.
While he’s won far greater honors — five Olympic gold medals, for starters — those races are among the most important of his career, marking the 30-year-old swimmer’s return to the sport after being diagnosed with testicular cancer in January.
“I was going there to compete, get that feeling back where it needs to be, because I haven’t done it in so long,” he said.
Asked whether he was satisfied with his times — 22.22 seconds in the 50 and 49.83 in the 100 — Adrian just laughs.
“Anyone at the (Olympic) level who tells you they’re satisfied, they’re lying,” he said. “I want to go back and do it again and go faster. That’s what it’s all about.”
The pace of his recovery has frustrated Adrian at times. He underwent two major surgeries and lost about 15 pounds off of his 6-foot-6 frame, he said. He returned to the weight room in early February and was back in the pool several weeks later. On April 22, he announced his PET scans showed clean.
Now that he’s competing again, Adrian plans to shift his training into another gear.
“I need to practice specific aspects of the race, whether it be the start or the turn, instead of (focusing on) general conditioning,” he said. “That’s one of the things I take back from (Bloomington).”
Adrian wed longtime girlfriend Hallie Ivester, a former Stanford diver, in a romantic Napa Valley ceremony last September. He credits his bride with helping to keep him strong and positive throughout his recovery.
“She was absolutely wonderful,” Adrian said. “If there was any doubt, which there wasn’t, that this is the person I am going to spend the rest of my life with, this eliminates it. Every marriage is going to go through some sort of adversity; I just don’t think many have a cancer diagnosis in first four months.”
One positive he brings out of his battle is that it’s strengthened their bond.
“We appreciate so much more the time we spend together, what we mean to each other,” he said.
Another has been spreading this message to others: If something doesn’t feel right, get it checked out. According to John Hopkins Medicine, testicular cancer is the number one malignancy among men aged 20 to 40.
“I’ve had swimmers say to me, ‘Dude, me too, thank you for talking about this,’” Adrian said. “People have reached out on Instagram to say, ‘Hey, I’m going through the same thing, can you tell me about your story?’”
Adrian’s next competition will be the world championships in Gwangju, South Korea, July 12-28, immediately followed by the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. He hopes for times considerably better than those he posted in Bloomington.
“It’s about racing the best in the world this summer and making sure by fall we’re in the same kind of shape we would need to be, if the cancer thing didn’t come around,” he said.
Adrian is also planning for life after racing. In April, he partnered with Will Copeland, a former swim teammate at University of California, Berkeley, to purchase the Ann Curtis School of Swimming in San Rafael, near his home in Oakland. The school was founded in 1959 by Curtis, who won two gold medals and a silver at the Olympic Games London 1948. The facility was set to be developed into 16 condominium units before Adrian and Copeland stepped in.
“We need more water, we need good places to teach kids how to swim,” he said. “I want to be involved in good things for the community.”
But not full time, not just yet. Already one of the most successful U.S. sprinters in Olympic history, Adrian would dearly love to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Games.
“My eyes are opening, I see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I’m still not ready to be done yet,” he said. “Jumping on the blocks, I like the butterflies. I like the anxiety. I like the response my body gives.
“Getting up and racing against the best in the world, that’s not something I can come back to after I retire. I want to enjoy this for as long as I can. That is what drives me.”