Nathan Adrian Missing Tokyo Would Be Huge Loss for Team USA

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Nathan Adrian Missing Tokyo Would Be Huge Loss for Team USA

As the swimmers in the first semifinal of the Olympic Trials men’s 100 freestyle reached the home stretch, everyone inside the arena in Omaha realized the significance of the moment. Nathan Adrian, one of the best sprinters in American history and an absolute stalwart on the U.S. National Team for more than a decade, was fading hard. He was out blisteringly fast, in 22.81 to the feet at the halfway point, but after that swim and a fast morning prelims, the 32-year-old had nothing left in the tank.

It was a jarring image to see Adrian struggling to get to the wall, and he touched sixth in the heat in 48.92, more than a half-second off his morning time of 48.37. He finished 13th overall and out of the final, and the realization of what that meant quickly took hold.

Adrian still has the 50 free to come, beginning Saturday, but by far his best chance of qualifying for his fourth Olympic team came in the 100 free, at least as a relay swimmer. Now, barring a significant surprise in the 50 free, the cancer survivor, new dad and 2016 U.S. Olympic team captain won’t be in Tokyo.

Aside from his consistency in the pool, Adrian has spent years building a reputation as one of the strongest leaders and most classy people in the sport, in victory and defeat. In the moments after his disappointing swim, Adrian lived up to his name. Few could have blamed him if he chose to avoid the virtual mixed zone with reporters, but he came with a smile on his face. He was still spirited, the typical Nathan Adrian who never takes anything too seriously and can take a positive attitude about anything.

Even in the moment, he could still reflect on watching the evolution of the sport over his lengthy career, and even if the gradual improvement in the men’s 100 free hurt his chances of making it to Tokyo, he was still proud of the event’s progression.

“Looking at what made top-16 this year compared to 2012, I’m pretty sure 16th this year would have been first from prelims going into 2012,” Adrian correctly pointed out. “That’s nuts. That’s incredible. To watch the sport evolve and watch people finally grasp the idea of doing true race pace throughout the year has been fun. Unlike track and field, the metaphorical glass ceiling of performance is still so much higher. I’m looking forward to watching and doing what I can to contribute to seeing what that glass ceiling eventually is.”

Maybe that poise shows the added perspective of knowing that at this stage, his life is so much more than swimming. He admitted that being married and having baby daughter Parker in his life might make the disappointment a little easier to swallow, but the result still hurt.

“There’s no doubt that’s disappointing, but it’s a lot different. One of my best friends, Matt Grevers, and I, we have our little secret conversations we really don’t let other people see most of the time. When I had a bad practice before, it was a little bit of a dagger in the heart, a twist, and we would be very, very affected by that. Now, I sort of go home and I can let it go immediately and I can give my wife and baby a big hug and kiss,” he said. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stick two good swims out there. I had a really good one this morning, but backing that one up, I honestly don’t know what happened.”

Thirteen years earlier, Adrian actually kicked off his elite career in Omaha, on the same fourth night of Olympic Trials, in the same 100 free semifinals. He tied for ninth that night, but when Ryan Lochte scratched the final to focus on other events, Adrian won a swim-off and jumped at the opportunity, placing fourth in the final to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.

He was just 19 then, and he matured into his role as the critical relay anchor and, eventually, the leader of the U.S. team. Everyone with national team experience, swimmers, coaches and staff alike, wanted Adrian to be on the Olympic team, simply for the steady hand he could provide. Grevers would also have served as a valuable veteran presence in Tokyo, but Adrian’s chances of making the team were seen as stronger due to six swimmers potentially qualifying for relay duty in the 100 free.

A few events later, Zach Harting qualified for his first Olympic team by winning the 200 fly, and he refused to accept the fact that Adrian and Grevers may not qualify for the Games. His experience with that duo at the 2019 World Championships cemented his affection and respect for them.

“Me and Zane (Grothe) actually got to room with the two of them at Worlds,” Harting said. “They were like, ‘Yeah, this is basically exactly what the Olympic village is like.’ They just had a plethora of knowledge. Anytime you talked to them, they were super calm. They were like, ‘What do you need?’ You can talk to them about your race. They will talk to you about theirs. It’s just their leadership. They’re kind of like the father-figures of the team.

“I’m not going to say they’re not going to make it because they’re staples of the U.S. team. I don’t know what would be missed. It’s just they’re a staple for us, and they’re going to make it. That’s what they do.”

At this point, the odds are stacked against Harting’s prediction coming true.

That could mean the end of a long era in the pool. Adrian has anchored every men’s 400 free relay at an international meet since 2009 except for one, when he led off at the 2012 Olympics, and he has anchored every single 400 medley relay since 2010. The Americans will miss his sprint skills and clutch relay abilities for sure.

But unless he pulls off a 50 free stunner, they will miss his steady leadership and calming hand far more.

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Francisco Eduardo Bravo Rodriguez

Holy #&% we are losing a lot of good swimmers because of the pandemic ?

Boaz Schwartz
2 years ago

It would be , cause he’s a great great role model and a supreme athlete. Rules are rules however and it’s a tight field for those sprinters and Caleb is pretty much a guaranteed spot so that doesn’t leave much for the rest of the athletes.

Tim Morrison
Tim Morrison
2 years ago

There are quite a few fading race performances.
Wondering if coaches didn’t cut back on training enough looking ahead to Tokyo.

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