Nathan Adrian is an American swimmer and three-time Olympic gold medalist who currently holds the American record in the 50 and 100-yard freestyle events. Nathan was kind enough to chat with ReachOut volunteer Pippa Scott about his Olympic journey, graduating from University of California, Berkeley and how he managed to achieve his dreams.
What made you want to start swimming competitively?
Nathan Adrian: Honestly, competitive swimming was just kind of in my blood. My brother and sister had always done it. I grew up in an area where there were a lot of distractions and a lot of negative distractions that could bring me down, and so my mom wanted me to get involved in some extra curricular activities outside of school to keep me going and keep me focused.
Congratulations on recently graduating from UC Berkeley. It is very inspirational that you managed to find time to train, study and be social. How did you maintain a sense of balance? Was it difficult?
Nathan: Yes (laughs) it was extremely difficult! Everybody has their own story and struggles through school, but the reason I was successful was because I was able to compartmentalize my time. When I was really focused on school, I was really focused on school and when I was really focused on swimming, I was really focused on swimming. The little time I had for being social I was definitely being social and interacting with my friends versus doing any one of those activities with another on my mind. It’s not going to work out well for you if you are going to be in the water training hard but reviewing chemistry problems for your test that’s upcoming in two or three days.
That sounds great in theory, but how did you train your brain to be able to keep everything so separate. I know for even myself sometimes it is hard on a more basic level to be doing one activity without checking my phone constantly! It can be very difficult…How did you manage it?
Nathan: You know, in theory you're right. It does sound great and you know there is no perfect theory other than the fact that that is what I wanted to do. There were still thoughts in the back of my head even during practice like "Hey, maybe I shouldn’t try as hard because I’m going to be so much more tired, and I won’t be able to study later." At the same time, in terms of studying I knew I couldn’t study in my room because I knew I wasn’t efficient in doing it - I would go and bother my roommates or do this or do that. When I really wanted to get something done, I would have to get a cup of coffee, go to the library, or go somewhere quiet wherever it was just me and my studies or working with a study partner.
What does it take to become a gold medalist and how can aspiring athletes get there? Is it a case of mainly being very disciplined and knowing what you can and can’t do like you just mentioned?
Nathan: Yeah, that is tough. I mean there are really a lot of things. One of them is going to be support from around you. Not that that is completely in your control, but you can definitely control the type of people you surround yourself with. I’m fortunate in that I have a ton of people who are really positive. If people dream big or have high goals we don’t cut them down for it because of that. Instead we say, "I like the fact you have these great goals. Let’s figure out a way we can help you achieve them." We do that in a group so that’s something that’s really special about being here. Then besides that you just need to have a huge amount of desire, dedication and a lot of discipline. Just take a combination of them and being able to do things you really don’t want to do at the time. I mean getting up at 5 a.m. for practice 5 days a week is not something I necessarily wanted to do all the time, but I knew I needed to do it to be good.
And once you reach your goals, the payoff is so great you are willing to do it all again?
Nathan Adrian: Absolutely! The funny thing is that I have been more excited to train right now then I think I have been in years. The fact that I was successful just makes me want to get back in the water and start to improve myself that much more and see how far I can really take myself in this sport.
Yes, congratulations again on all your successes at this year’s Olympics! It inspired so many people and that must be a real motivating force in propelling yourself forward?
Nathan: Yes, exactly! It’s great!
With all of that pressure to win, I imagine that could put a great deal of stress on someone. Were there things you did to help relieve your stress and to become more relaxed?
Nathan: Yes, absolutely. You know, what’s funny is that some people see swimming as a huge stress, but exercise is such a stress reliever helping you to release endorphins. I really do believe in that and feel it especially going into a practice and being really stressed out about school or outside situations, and then to get a good swim in or work out, and then afterwards it just kind of clears my mind. Those stresses are still there, but after I can figure out how to conquer them and what I can do about them.
Swimming with so many other great U.S. athletes like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, did it ever make you feel intimidated or were you to focused on what you needed to do?
Nathan: I had a lot of pressure on my shoulders in the 2011 World Championships. I actually came up short on that. I didn’t do quite as well as I had hoped or a lot of people thought I would do, but I quickly realized that that was because I had let other people’s expectations get the better of me. I’m the most comfortable swimming for myself and going in there trying to be the best that I can be because I know there is nothing I can do to control everybody else. There is no point in worrying about what’s going on outside your lane in swimming. So swimming in 2012, it really was an internal focus, feeding off of that positive energy of my teammates and trying to utilize that.
Is there anything you do routine wise before a race that helps you get focused or relax? Are you superstitious at all?
Nathan: (Laughs) No, I don’t really adhere to any strict routines. I think any superstitions, to be completely honest, would just end up hurting me. If I had a lucky rabbit’s foot, or if I had anything like that, I would totally forget it because I forget things all the time. I’m really forgetful and then I would think I’m not going to be able to do my best because I didn’t have it. So I don’t necessarily believe in that. Talking with other people in the ready room or my teammates before the race is really beneficial to relax. Sometimes they don’t even have an event that day but they are nice enough to give their time to help other people relax. There is a lot to be said about having a laugh before a race!
You mentioned earlier that a strong network of support helps you. Is there anyone in particular that inspired you to become an Olympian?
Nathan: I was able to train with Gary Hall, Jr. in 2007. He was the Olympic champion in 2000 and 2004 in the 50 m freestyle, and I was really appreciative of how open he was and friendly and down to earth of a guy. There was this huge persona that was put on him by the media and then you meet him and he is just the nicest and most generous guy that you’ve ever met. So I really enjoyed that!
That ties in nicely with my last question. Since you have been in the media spotlight has it changed your relationships with friends and family, etc… at all? Have you noticed a shift?
With my closest friends, absolutely not, I love that and it really shows the character of who my friends are. Outside of that, there is a little bit of a change but it is nothing I blame anyone for. It’s just kind of the natural ebb and flow of this professional swimming life. It’s probably going to settle down in about a year or so, and then hopefully in 2016 it will be there again. When I look at relationships that I have with people and if they change…it’s not really something I see as a positive or necessarily a negative thing - it’s just kind of a thing. It’s kind of a side effect of me being able to achieve my goals. I’m also thankful to my coaches, the people surrounding me and ultimately to my health that I’ve been able to achieve them!
ReachOut Readers, tell us what helps you reach your goals in comments!
Also check out these fact sheets on maintaing good health and relieving stress for more infomration on topics covered above!
Photo courtesy of the USOC
Pippa began volunteering for ReachOut towards the end of 2011. In addition she has worked the past ten years in the entertainment industry in London, Vancouver, LA and NYC. This work includes PA to British Film Director Ken Loach, working for various renowned agents and publicists, and serving as entertainment columnist for The University of Manchester's Student Direct Newspaper.