By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Last year, the University of California just missed out on an NCAA Swimming and Diving Championship title. This year, Olympian Nathan Adrian helped the Bears rebound and claim that title. The sprinter talks about this year, last year, 2008 – and 2012 – in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
On Monday, the Cal academic standout was also named a Pac 10 Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
1. How does it feel to win the team title?
Nathan: It is still sinking in to be honest, every day. It’s a hard feeling to describe. A lot of people who have won titles say they felt like they were dreaming. They’re just waiting to wake up eventually. I never really understood what that was like until this.
2. Your individual title aside, you’re happier with the team trophy, aren’t you?
Nathan: It’s all about the team, honestly. That’s the reason why I swam collegiately this year. I knew how much it meant to all of us as a group that we had a shot at winning a national title. The embodiment of what we became as a team is what brought those performances out of this group.
3. Was last year’s near miss – losing to Texas – something you had to forget, or did you all remember that?
Nathan: I think everybody remembered it. You remember losing. Of course you do, especially a close, emotional race like that. It’s not fun. We used it as motivation to come back and outperform ourselves from the previous year. It’s called the swimming and diving championship, so diving is a scored part of it. So Texas plays its card, Stanford plays its card, and we play our card, which for better or worse is 18 swimmers.
4. How much do your teammates mean to you? It seems like a freakishly close-knit group, even a family. Is that correct?
Nathan: It’s pretty wild to be part of a team like this. I never fully understood it until about last year when I realized what a group of people we had. After the (last) relay (this year), some of the guys had tears in our eyes. It’s unbelievable to think that just a few years ago I walked onto Cal’s pool deck as a kid, with no idea of what a swim team really could be. We showed ourselves with these last couple of years what a team can be. It’s fun to look back on all the memories, whether it was PAC 10s or driving to the USC meet – we drive to USC, we don’t fly. And that’s a long bus ride going through Grapevine. I think about our training camps at the (Olympic Training Center) in Colorado Springs, where you are sort of stuck in a dungeon for two weeks with just the guys, the pool and the cafeteria. It’s a special group.
5. To win without the diving – does that mean a lot, and really tell you how special those swims were to get that many points to offset what you all lost in diving points?
Nathan: Absolutely. You said it all right there. The way we did it is what is so special.
6. How do you mean “special”?
Nathan: As opposed to a lot of other ways teams might do it, we didn’t put an emphasis on one person needing to score too many points, or getting this many ups and this many downs, or trying to extend our lead the second day. On the outside looking in, people might have thought we did that, but we didn’t. What we tried to emphasize is that swimming fast is fun. We have worked all year to outperform ourselves, to do better things than we have done in the past. The NCAA Championship is the time to let that show and let people know how good we are. That is how we did it. The fact that we are so close made it that much better. Every time a Cal cap was diving in the water, the people were all looking at the scoreboard knowing how hard that person had worked to perform at that level, in that race – in that moment.
7. Does it sweeten the title to know the Cal women’s team won the title the week before?
Nathan: Yeah, it really does. Although we are separate programs and the girls do something unique and we do our own training schedule to make us what we are, we share the common bond of being Cal Bears. To watch them go through it the week before was awesome. It was a lot of fun seeing those girls step up and see them get done the work they needed to do. They were cheering us on like crazy, and that means a lot to us.
8. You mentioned second place last year didn’t leave your mind – in a bad or good way?
Nathan: Right, yeah, well, what I mean is, there are lessons to be learned from getting second. That’s the way you need to look at any triumph or disappointment, to take the proper lesson from any experience you go through. Getting second was surely a disappointment, but it kept us hungry. Going through that gave us experience and knowing what we had to do definitely motivated us.
9. Did last year teach you all that the math would really require some other-worldly performances to make up the difference from the points lost from diving?
Nathan: One of the positives that we took from losing last year were that we needed to get people into finals. That is how you score points. That is how you win a championship meet, especially without diving. Damir (Dugonjic) in the 200 breaststroke is a perfect example.
10. Can you share that?
Nathan: I have to go back a little bit on this one. Typically, I room with Damir, and did the last few years at Pac 10 and Nationals, though we had different roommates last year. Anyway, when we roomed together, every time he had the 200 breaststroke coming up, he’d say, “I hate that race. It stinks so bad.” Even going back to my sophomore year, in the first 25 (of the 200 breaststroke), his goggles filled up with water at PAC 10s, and he got out – we told him he couldn’t do that, that he had to finish the race. This year, Damir was different. Though we didn’t room together at NCAAs, every time I hung out with him or saw him in the warm-up pool, he was excited to swim the 200 breaststroke. He said, “I really need to make a top 8 spot, I can do it.” That was the most incredible thing, seeing the transition he – and others – experienced in this process. In any other circumstance, he would hate the 200, but he knew he was doing it for Cal, so he wanted to get his hand on the wall for our team, and seeing him so excited about it was inspiring to all of us.
11. Cal really was the right place for you, wasn’t it?
Nathan: It’s really hard to describe how much I have grown to love this place. Obviously I chose it for a reason. I have fit in well, and I feel blessed that my love for this school has grown, and not diminished, in my time here. It is a special place.
12. Nice to go from rainy Seattle to that clear blue-sky, humidity-free Bay Area, isn’t it?
Nathan: Yeah (laughs), absolutely! You know what? I was seriously considering a lot of other schools. I thought about Arizona, Auburn and Texas. But I liked that Cal was similar in climate, that I could drive up and see the Bay and the ocean – that pushed it over the edge as the obvious choice for me, I just can’t be far from the ocean, or I’d get stir crazy.
13. What is your major and what will you do with it?
Nathan: Public health. I’m not quite sure yet what I will do with it. You know, hopefully I can help make the world a better place. That’s the goal of public health. The midterm I am studying for is physiology, and the one I had before spring break was in community health. The “upstream approach” is what they call it, working with communities and policy makers, trying to coordinate – and not to get too technical here – eliminate disparities among socioeconomic statuses, race and gender. The part I am interested in really is taking a scientific approach. This class I have the midterm in, is with one of the world’s most respected and renowned experts in exercise sports physiology.
14. The faculty there truly is world renowned, isn’t it?
Nathan: It is. The professor for that class is Dr. George Brooks. If you Google him, you will see how much impressive work he has done in the field.
15. The academic program there is awesome, isn’t it? How horrible am I for calling you for an interview on Monday?
Nathan: I mean, to answer the first part, you are speaking to a guy who (laughs) has a midterm tomorrow, so I hope so! Hey, you calling now is totally cool – it gives me a good little break between studying.
16. Competing for NCAA titles in sports at the highest level, top academics – what is that like, and what does it do for you?
Nathan: I think that the academic rigor – and all the athletes experience it here, whether it is fully appreciated it or not – helps with your athletic career. The stresses put on you as a student athlete elevate you as a person, because it makes you be so focused. That makes its way into everything else in your life. The entire atmosphere that has been created here benefits us in far more ways than we will ever fully understand until down the road.
17. It’s cool having senators and world leaders there regularly, isn’t it?
Nathan: There are national and world leaders here all the time, which is incredible. The Dalai Lama came here and I wasn’t in line eight or 10 hours before they opened, so I didn’t get a spot for that. But these opportunities are awesome.
18. So what’s up for you now that you are done swimming in college?
Nathan: Basically, the same thing I have been doing, swimming and school. I want to make a good transition into a professional career. To be a professional swimmer would be a dream come true. Hopefully (laughs), I don’t wake up anytime soon.
19. Cal started out the meet on a rough note with the 200 free relay. Did that sink you all at least for a moment?
Nathan: It was a little disappointing missing on the 200 freestyle relay since we had come in the defending national champion, and we lost it. But, again, through the next couple of events we got started back up. It always comes back to, “How are you going to handle this loss? Where do you go from here? How are you going to get there?”
20. On a brighter note, you won the 50 free and put down some great times from prelims to finals. Do you feel good about it?
Nathan: I didn’t know what to expect going into the 50, time-wise. I’ve never really known what to expect time-wise, in fact. Popping an 18.7 in the morning was a huge relief, because I knew that all the training I had put in the last few months with the team would pay off the rest of the meet. It just so happened the 50 was the first morning, and then winning at night was a huge relief. As with anything, there are expectations, external and internal. But this wasn’t about just doing something for myself; this is something I wanted to do for my team. They needed me, and I needed them. We all needed each other. That’s what a team is, stepping up for each other.