By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Even though he doesn’t suffer through the expectations, Nathan Adrian acknowledges they exist.
When Gary Hall Jr. baptized him as the future of U.S. sprinting at the 2008 Olympic Trials – where the Seattle native made the first of what should be several Olympic teams – Adrian was branded…but in a good way.
Ever since, he’s tried to live up to his mentor’s prognostication and admits it hasn’t always been easy – and he still has work to do to reach his own personal goals.
“I don’t really like to think in those terms,” Adrian said. “I like to look forward and don’t feel like I’ve accomplished all that much. I want to always be hungry, and that pushes me forward to my goals and all that I want to accomplish.”
And while his road has been met with almost as many failures as successes, Adrian – who won relay gold in Beijing in 2008 – remains steadfast in his quest to bring Olympic sprint gold back to the United States and USA Swimming.
After a competitive summer – kicked off by the FINA World Championships in Shanghai followed by the ConocoPhillips USA Swimming National Championships in Palo Alto, Calif., -- Adrian takes his first step toward London this weekend at the Austin Grand Prix.
For the past few months, he’s been training intensely at his home pool in Berkeley as well as most recently at altitude at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
He’s broken down his body almost to the core and, through strength and speed training as well as stroke technique, turns, starts and finishes, he’s building himself back up.
“It’s been a hard road, a lot of hard work, but I know what I’ve been doing will pay off this summer when it matters most,” said Adrian, who finished his collegiate career last spring by helping his Cal-Berkeley teammates to an NCAA Championship.
“I definitely feel like I’m inching up (among the world’s best sprinters), but I kind of like being in that underdog role. I like that distinction, and that’s where I take comfort. But overall, I’m feeling good. I’m not incredibly sharp right now, but I have a good base and have been working hard on the second half of my 100 and feel good about where I am in my swimming.”
He considered skipping his final year of collegiate competition to go pro following the 2010 NCAA season, but with the strong nucleus of swimmers returning in 2010-2011, Adrian said he stayed to help his teammates pursue an NCAA team title – which they accomplished.
He finished his Cal career with multiple individual and relay NCAA titles as well as a sense of what it means to be a teammate and work together toward a common goal.
“Swimming is such an individual sport that being a part of a team was something really special to me, something I really loved,” said Adrian, who will be an uncle for the first time this year when his sister has her first baby. “I’m very glad I didn’t leave to go pro and finished my time at Cal. It was so rewarding to finish on such a high team note.”
In Shanghai, Adrian said he competed with high hopes but left with no individual medals. Despite finishing fourth in the 50 and sixth in the 100 freestyles against a packed, fast international field, he did help his U.S. teammates win gold in the 400 medley and bronze in the 400 freestyle relays.
In a meet less than a year removed from his strongest international performance to date -- four gold medals (two relay and both the 50 and 100 free) at the 2010 Mutual of Omaha Pan Pacific Championships – Adrian said he felt like he let himself as well as his teammates down a bit with his swims at Worlds.
“I had a terrible race in the 50 free, but I was still transitioning from yard to meter swimming and left having learned something about myself as a swimmer and competitor,” said Adrian, who still has a couple of classes to finish for his bachelor’s degree.
“Now that I’ve had almost a full year of training just meters and have been able to focus on my training and swimming, I feel transformed.”
He also feels extremely motivated to take his swimming performance and results to new heights this summer at Trials and hopefully the London Olympic Games.
With his first Trials in his rear view mirror, Adrian now looks back on that experience with a more mature, seasoned vantage point and appreciation.
“It was a great experience overall for me aside from finishing fourth in the 100 free and making the Olympic team,” Adrian said. “I had to do the swim-off in the 100 to make the semis and then swam so well in the finals. The atmosphere in Omaha was amazing – unlike anything I had ever seen at a swim meet.
‘There’s really nothing like swimming in front of a U.S. audience who appreciate the sport and the work that we put in to be there.”
Embracing and not ignoring the expectations he will compete under this summer – the expectations to bring individual sprint gold back to the United States – Adrian feels he has taken the little steps in every area of his swimming, made them a priority, and has seen the improvement necessary to be a major player this summer in his second Olympics.
“I’ve really been working on the small things, particularly having more explosive starts, because it’s something the rest of the world lacks against Cesar (Cielo),” Adrian said. “As for the pressure, when I step behind the blocks, I don’t think about the consequences of losing. I focus on the racing part and let the rest happen.
“When you put in the time in the water and prepare yourself as well as you can, you just let things go and race in the sprints. I’m excited to see where my training will take me the rest of the year and especially this summer. No matter what, it’s going to be fun.”