Champion’s Mojo Podcast: Olympic Gold Medalist Nathan Adrian Shares Perspective on Life

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Nathan Adrian (Champion’s Mojo Podcast)

One of the finest sprinters in history and a man who has been as reliable as they come as a relay anchor, Nathan Adrian will one day enter the International Swimming Hall of Fame. But for all he has done in the water, he has also been an inspiration out of it. It’s been a year since Adrian returned to the pool during a battle with testicular cancer.

In the latest version of the Champion’s Mojo Podcast, hosts Kelly Palace and Maria Parker chat with Adrian, who is chasing an invitation to a fourth Olympiad. Adrian discusses a variety of topics with Palace and Parker, including why he calls the sport his “passion project.” The full interview of Episode #49 can be accessed here, with the abridged Q&A of the interview below.

Champion’s Mojo: So as we start off a new year and a new decade, what thoughts come up for you when we say 2020?

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Nathan Adrian. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Nathan Adrian: I guess I didn’t think about it being the new decade until I saw the social media posts. That’s right, the 2010s are now over. I think for all of us that are currently in the quad cycle (because our lives revolve around this four year cycle), each Olympics is its own endpoint. So for me, 2020 basically means Tokyo Olympics. After that, I don’t know.

Champion’s Mojo: What else is exciting to you about the future?

Nathan Adrian: I’ve been doing a lot of work. Recently I met with an old training buddy of mine (Will Copeland) who I swam with at Cal. We purchased a swim school up in San Rafael in Marin County. We’re trying to take what they’ve already done and grow it a little bit. I’ve also been involved with the USA Swimming Foundation for my entire professional career and now I’m trying to spread the importance of swim lessons. This is just taking that a step further to help provide those lessons for the community. And it’s been really, really great, a really rewarding experience.

I always knew that after swimming was done, I wasn’t just walking away from the pool, dropping my cap and goggles, in some sort of dramatic fashion. And this way I get to keep one foot in, one foot out and try to take some of the lessons that I learned and give that as a gift to younger kids. And hopefully they take what I learned way, way further than I’ve even taken it. I feel like the older generation of swimmers has done that for me. As I was going through as a young national teamer in 2008, 2009, watching Natalie (Coughlin), watching Jason (Lezak), watching Dara (Torres) and Michael (Phelps), those guys were just so incredible and amazing, just a library of knowledge to watch and try to emulate and take what I thought I could learn from them and make it my own.

Champion’s Mojo: So how involved do you think you’ll be in the swim school?

Nathan Adrian: We’ve been pretty involved so far. In a good way. It’s not a startup, it’s been running for 60 years, but Will and I want to take it and make it our own and grow it. As with any business, you wear a lot of different hats. One day I’m trying to pretend to understand eight different Excel spreadsheets. Fortunately I have friends who are very gifted who help me to understand those things. Or putting on my insurance broker hat and trying to figure out the best insurance and then, pretending to be a general contractor and trying to find people to fix this, that or the other. It’s all really fun, exciting stuff. And I’m very grateful for swimming and swimming through college, because those two things taught me how to approach problems and how to tackle them. So I can take that mentality into our small business.

Champion’s Mojo: Will we be actually blowing bubbles in the pool ever?

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Nathan Adrian: Yeah, a little bit here and there and doing a little bit of private lessons when the time comes. As my time in the pool, training for the Olympics, winds down, I expect teaching will be a little more in the spotlight for me. Definitely.

Champion’s Mojo: Can you talk about what having this different kind of challenge means for you?

Nathan Adrian: Yeah. I think it’s interesting and I watch some of the younger athletes in this cycle of swimming in college and being really, really excited to be done with schoolwork and just focus on swimming. And it works out really well for almost everyone. Because being able to just focus on swimming is great. Focus on recovery. Focus on nutrition. Focus on getting the right amount of sleep.

And then, as with all of us, the kind of innate human nature of wanting to continue to grow in some way, shape or form. It’s this little seed in the back of our heads. And I have spoken with a lot of national teamers who don’t know what that next challenge is for them. I’m like, hey, enjoy this. And it’ll pop up, because I didn’t necessarily know that I would be purchasing and running a swim school. And I find that, as much as I dream about success at the Olympics, I also dream about fun new ideas for teaching kids how to swim.

So that’s what’s really cool about this for me. It’s a way to grow on a personal level and then also have something else to engage in. Because as a lot of us would tell you, having only swimming can be tough because there are gonna be times that no matter how hard you try, how perfect your nutrition is, how many massages you get a week, sometimes there might be a hiccup. You might hit a speed bump. You might not be dropping the times in practice that you want to. Maybe you’re sick or maybe an injury happens. I don’t know what it may be, but I’ll tell you this, if you swim for long enough, it’ll happen. And it’s really important to have something else going in your life to lean on for that time, and still maintain going to practice and doing your weights and all that good stuff. And the swimming portion will pick up. You’ve gotta give it a little time.

Champion’s Mojo: You’re coming back from a cancer diagnosis and recovery and you’re already back swimming great, swimming fast. Was that the biggest obstacle so far in your life?

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Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Nathan Adrian: Yeah, so far, definitely. I had a couple pretty poignant moments in the last month or so, and I still have a few coming up. I’m pretty sure this time last year I was just getting back in the water a little bit in preparation for my second surgery. So that was a tough time. I still had cancer in me. I still had further treatments to go. I was still digesting this entire thing.

We were still kind of mulling over our options in terms of what treatment would look like based off of pathology. The most surprising thing about the diagnosis of cancer is how much of a gray area there is when it comes to your health and your health outcomes based off of your treatments. It was really good for me as a numbers person to have taken a couple statistics courses in my public health education so I could digest it and understand that. Hey, 80 percent, 90 percent means 80 percent, 90 percent. We don’t know today it could be perfect or it could come back. And I have to be able to understand and digest that and live with that because that’s the only thing you really can do. Unfortunately, you can’t control it all. We always want to control everything, but it just doesn’t work that way.

Champion’s Mojo: What do you think the biggest lesson from your cancer diagnosis is?

Nathan Adrian: I think the biggest lesson in this whole thing is just how finite our time on earth is as humans. It’s a lesson that I think everyone learns at some point in their life. I just don’t know when I would have learned it had I not had a cancer diagnosis.

So much of swimming, so much of my entire life really has been prospective. It has been preparing for what’s coming in the future. And then this was really a huge dose of being retrospective. Hey, did I live my life the way I wanted to live it? And so far, I am very happy and saying yes, for the most part, I did. Certainly there are some things that I would go back and change, just be nicer to the people on the street or whatever it may be. But, for the most part, I was at peace with that. And that was a good lesson to go through for me and then I guess you take that retrospective look and then take it prospective. So fortunately things are looking good. I still have close surveillance for the next year so that it could come back. I think my next MRI is in two months. That could mean that in two months and a week, I could be going into chemo. But that being said, how are we going to make sure that when the end of the time here does come, do I feel good about my time on earth.

It gets a little crazy because my life has typically been study hard, get good grades, swim hard and practice, lift hard in the weight room, swim fast. This is a much bigger scale of thoughts and processes going through my head.

Champion’s Mojo: One of the great gifts of cancer is that it helps you know what’s important. How would you answer that question?

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Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

Nathan Adrian: I do know definitively now that at the end of my life, I don’t care how many gold, silver or bronze medals I have at the Olympics, and I don’t mean to minimize what I’m trying to do and our goals for this summer, because that is ultimately what I focus on. But it’s not because I want to have X number of gold medals or X number of American records or whatever it may be. I think this has always been fun for me. It’s been a passion project. And why I love doing it is because it’s like fun optimization, like a puzzle. I’m one of those guys who, the second I sit in the dentist office, I look for like the little fidgets, finger spinners or the little toys and stuff on the table. And that’s kind of how I approach swimming at this point, especially as I get a little bit older. What has worked for me in the past isn’t always necessarily working for me now. My body has adapted to the stimuli. So we’ve got to figure out different ways to stimulate my body to try to adapt and get faster. So that’s what is fun about this for me.

Champion’s Mojo: Nathan, you’re obviously a huge inspiration to everybody, so who has inspired you? You have watched some of our greatest performances in the last three Olympics. What storyline sticks out for you?

Nathan Adrian: I take a lot of inspiration from a lot of different people. I think there’s a little bit of an illusion to it. Earlier when I was talking about being able to watch some of the athletes that I got to watch in my younger days, it wasn’t necessarily one person that I saw that I wanted to emulate. It was more like I saw certain aspects of who they were. I’m me, there’s certain parts of me that it’s probably going to take a lot of effort to change. I don’t necessarily want to do that. So I take aspects of people or their stories and I am inspired by that.

I mentioned Gary Hall, Jr. I think his work with juvenile diabetes is awesome. I went to college with an athlete on the crew team who unfortunately passed away from lung cancer. And through her battle, they went on to contend for an NCAA title. That was unbelievably inspiring to me. Watching that happen and her passion for her teammates and life. I still look back on it and watch some of the videos and it brings a tear to my eye. There are so many people who, unfortunately, didn’t catch their cancer as early as I did and have to deal with the impacts of that, a lot more than just a couple of surgeries. To each and every one of those people, I almost feel like I owe it to them to try to see how far we can take this.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

I just wish that this wasn’t the scourge on the human race. Hopefully this open discourse encourages everyone to go to the doctor if you feel something is wrong, have a headache that just feels a little bit different than the normal headaches or, the same with your back or whatever. Maybe you need to go to a doctor and check it out because, with cancer, the earlier you can catch it, your prognosis is always better.

Champion’s Mojo: What are some routines or rituals that you could share that have made you successful?

Nathan Adrian: I think it was out of the 2012 Olympics and the British cycling team had a great performance and they were just talking about marginal improvements.

I think especially as you get done going through puberty, basically that’s free money. You’re growing. You’re going to drop time. It’s great. It feels awesome. I loved it. But as soon as you’re done with that, you’ve got to really work on your marginal improvements and you can find marginal improvements in almost every aspect of your life.

I think the really obvious ones in swimming, specifically, would be to make sure every turn in practice is good. What does that even mean? Having a good push off and streamline and good integrity and doing the number of kicks that you’re you’re aiming to get. So start with three, work up to four or five and then maybe six. Or maybe making sure that you’re not breathing off of your breakouts. These are marginal improvements that you have to work on and be very specific about them as you’re working through them.

You can make marginal improvements in your personal relationships, too, which I think makes you a better human. If we’re looking at it from a physiological level, hopefully small changes can make your stress levels go down, can improve your recovery, and you then you swim faster. So I definitely believe in those marginal improvements and just maintaining a high level of integrity in everything that you do instead of trying to make one drastic jump from one year to the next.

Champion’s Mojo: Can you give a specific example of a marginal improvement in relationships?

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Nathan Adrian: Thinking about yourself as a culmination of your community. It would be great if all my success was just me. I work so darn hard, I beat all the odds….. not even close (that it is just me). I had my brother and sister who were both swimmers before me. The hardest thing is doing something no one has ever done before. Those two, they took swimming as far as they could take it. I liken it to walking through a path in the jungle that hadn’t been walked through before. They cut this path through the jungle and then brought me to where I was, making nationals and Olympic Trials. That’s how far they took it. Then it was up to me to take it a little bit further. But even with that, it wasn’t just me. It was my coaches, it was my parents who were driving me to and from practice every day. And while one was driving me, the other one was patiently waiting at home for a phone call saying, hey, we’re 30 minutes away, start cooking. And beyond that, in college, being grateful for my peers who were supportive of me and understanding that I had goals and aspirations outside of just trying to swim fast in the collegiate environment and respecting that. It’s the collective we. And that’s how I think that everyone should probably think about these things, because you can’t do it alone.

Champion’s Mojo: So it’s the humility that comes from knowing that you’re standing on the shoulders of all the people who have helped you?

Nathan Adrian: Yeah, absolutely. And then, at a certain point, you can try to give back: to be those shoulders.

Champion’s Mojo: You’ve obviously got an amazing mindset. Watching your Olympic 100 free win, at the 85 meter mark you were not going to win the gold medal, but somehow you put your head down in the last 15 meters.What went through your mind in those last 15 meters before you won gold?

Nathan Adrian: Execute. I think that’s the only thing you can do. And it brings back talking about the probabilities and taking a little bit of a probabilistic mindset into swimming. You know that there is the old saying, if you’ve got a lane, you got a chance. Yes. Lane one, lane eight. You have a chance. It has happened before. Maybe you don’t have as high of a chance as lane four does, who set the world record in the semifinals, but you have a chance and you have to understand that in order to give yourself the best chance of succeeding, you have to execute your plan.

There’s plenty of days in practice where Dave (Durden) and our coaches turn the clocks off – and say, success today is not based off of a time. It’s how you moved. It’s making sure that we’re going to step up to a 100 free off the blocks. And I want you to hit every stroke the way you want to hit it. I want you to hit the wall the way you want to hit it and hit your no breath cycle, and make sure that all of those factors are there so that when we are in a place physiologically to go a best time at the end of the season, it’s just automatic in your head.

So at the eighty five meter mark in the 2012 Olympics, I knew that it was about time to go to straight-arm, so I had to get some good air, take a good deep breath and have a nice good body line, go straight-arm and do the best that I can. Because that’s the only thing that I can control in that particular moment. My muscles were screaming at me, so I had to start using some different muscles that were a little more fresh and it ended up working out.

Champion’s Mojo: What are a couple of traits that you think champions share?

Nathan Adrian

Photo Courtesy:
Swimming World Magazine

Nathan Adrian: Number one, we are competitive, really, really, really competitive. It can get pretty intense in some card games and some video games. Even these days, we all downloaded the newest app. It’s called BlockuDoku. It’s like Tetris, but also Sudoku. At training camp we were all playing it. And I think currently Andrew Seliskar has the highest score. But all of us get really excited when we’re coming close to it. So definitely, definitely a level of competitiveness.

But also, there has to be a level of resilience. Like I said before, when you’ve done this long enough. You’re going to fail. Something that you don’t want to happen is going to happen. And that’s OK. You only really fail if you don’t learn from it. If you don’t figure out a way to try to make sure that it doesn’t happen again next time. And that’s one of the most important parts, because you have to get up after you get punched. If you don’t, then you’re going to quit. You’re not going to make it to the end of the season.

Champion’s Mojo: That’s great. That’s going to wrap it up. Thank you so much. We really appreciate your time and we will definitely be cheering for you!

Nathan Adrian: Thank you guys so much!

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