By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
“Wait, this is not real life? Is this what it (winning gold) really feels like?”
Those were the first thoughts that crossed Nathan Adrian’s mind when he looked up at the board and saw the number 1 next to his name at the London Olympics last summer.
By .01 seconds, he had out-touched his heavily-favored competition to win his first individual Olympic gold medal in the 100 freestyle – becoming the first U.S. Olympic sprint champion since Gary Hall Jr. won gold in the 50 free at the 2004 Athens Games – and he was in happy disbelief.
Considering the intense training regimen he put his body through leading up to Olympic Trials last June – breaking down his body before building it back up – the end result shouldn’t have been a huge surprise.
Still, because of his humble nature, Adrian has never been one to call much attention to himself, and conversely, he’s not one to rest on his accomplishments.
“To be honest, having a gold medal from the previous year’s major international competition is almost more of a burden than something that gives me confidence,” Adrian said. “I gain confidence from the work that I put in the pool each and every day leading up to a competition, not from something that happened a year ago.
As the reigning Olympic champion, Adrian knows he will have a huge target on his back this summer, first at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships – where the 2013 World Championship team will be selected – and second, in Barcelona, at the World Championships.
Expectations as America’s next great sprinter were heaped upon him at the 2008 Olympic Trials by friend and training partner Gary Hall Jr. Ever since, the Seattle native has shouldered that impending pressure with the same style and finesse that has made him one of the most well-liked and respected swimmers and people in the world.
When the gold medals didn’t come immediately after his coronation in 2008, rather than get down on himself, Adrian took things in stride, continued to work hard and gradually ascended to the top of the world.
“I don’t really like to think in those terms,” Adrian said. “I want to always be hungry, and that pushes me forward to my goals and all that I want to accomplish.
“This has been an absolutely incredible year for me. Whether I won gold or not, I was going to be done with my undergraduate degree (University of California-Berkeley) and be able to focus just on swimming, which I have looked forward to for years now.”
Since winning gold, Adrian said his life is basically unchanged despite the occasional magazine layout and/or photo shoot. He recently sat chin-high in water mixed with acrylic paint for several hours for an ad campaign, and said his gold medal performance has made him more recognizable.
“I will be introduced as an Olympic gold medalist on occasion, which is a bit surreal,” Adrian said. “Beyond that, however, not a whole lot has changed.”
When he’s not training or traveling, Adrian said he has really found the San Francisco area to be enjoyable, going into the city to try new restaurants, as well as go to the beach, weather permitting.
With Nationals and Worlds coming fast, Adrian said he has been focusing on the final stages of preparation after a busy six months traveling and finding a balance between swimming and his professional life.
“This summer has really snuck up on me because for almost six months (September-February/March) I found myself extremely busy,” Adrian said. “The balance between swimming and professional obligations was tipped in favor of the professional side of things for a while, but right now, we are sharpening up some of our detail work and also beginning to work on some speed work.
“I am very excited for World Championship Trials. I think USA Swimming and the city of Indianapolis will do a great job hosting it this year just as they have in the past. I’m expecting this summer to be a lot of fun because it is still a major international competition but there is definitely a lot less stress going through the meet.”
Beyond this summer’s meets, Adrian, who is still young and continues to develop his technique and strategies every day, sees the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016 as his long-term focus. Meets like Nationals and Worlds and other international meets between the Olympics are ways to fine-tune and improve for the big show every four years.
In fact, it was after his four-gold-medal performance (50 and 100 freestyle, 400 medley and freestyle relays) at the 2010 Mutual of Omaha Pan Pacific Championships that he said he realized he had what it takes to win an individual medal at Worlds or the Olympics.
He used that as motivation as he continued to prepare for the 2012 Olympic Trials – which ultimately helped propel him to Olympic gold last summer.
“I will continue (health permitting) to swim through Rio 2016, and then reevaluate after that,” Adrian said. “I love that swimming is my job now, and I could not imagine it any other way, but four years of intense swimming/competing might leave me with another perspective to consider.”