Catching Up with Gary Hall Jr.
By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
If you think the real Gary Hall Jr. is the showman – boxing shorts, robe and all – he portrayed before big races in his career, you don’t know him at all.
Behind the “theatrics” that brought attention to the sport he succeeded in at a high level for more than a decade, Hall is anything but a boisterous attention-seeker.
In fact, he struggled so much with the celebrity he attained as an Olympic gold medalist and American record holder that he “needed” to create someone else he could be to cope.
“For some reason, some people have preconceived expectations of a chest thumping lunatic when they meet me, but I’m such a shy person that I conscientiously had to create a persona to hide behind,” Hall said. “I sought out therapy at a very early age, long before I qualified for an Olympic Games, to address my distaste for fame or recognition.
“It was a calculated approach. I found many benefits to the ‘theatrics,’ including marketability and psychological advantage over some opponents. In the end, I had a lot of fun with that created character. Sport is entertainment, after all.”
Regardless of the alter ego Hall created to mask his shyness, his performance in the water never needed a disguise. In three Olympic Games (1996, 2000 and 2004), Hall won 10 medals – five gold, three silver and two bronze. He won back-to-back 50 freestyles at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games.
A descendent of swimming royalty, Hall was almost destined to become an Olympic champion whether he wanted to be or not.
His dad, Gary Sr., medaled at three straight Olympics (1968, 1972 and 1976) and was selected by his teammates to be the U.S. flag bearer in the opening ceremonies of the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. His uncle Charles, the brother of his mother, Mary, swam at the 1976 Olympics, and her father, Gary’s grandfather, also named Charles, was a national swimming champion in the 1940s.
Despite coming from such swimming lineage, Hall said he was never forced to become a swimmer, but he was too naturally acclimated and gifted in swimming not to pursue it.
My parents were very supportive and always advised me to have fun,” Hall said. “It’s the best advice to give. My father never tried to coach me. That would have never worked. Yes, there was a ton of pressure to follow in his footsteps. He was world swimmer of the year twice, held 11 world records and remains the only swimmer to carry the flag for the United States in the opening ceremonies.
“Fortunately, most of that pressure came from others in the sport, not from him. He couldn’t give me success in the sport. It was something that I had to work for and earn. I hated it when people dismissed my success as inherited talent, and that happened often.”
When he finished his swimming career following a fourth-place finish in the 50 freestyle at the 2008 Olympic Trials, Hall said he walked away from the sport with no regrets.
He had accomplished everything he could, and he ended his stellar career in a peaceful state of satisfaction and enjoyment – although it did take him some time to find another interest to fill the void.
“There aren’t very many other things out there that can be as consuming as competitive swimming,” Hall said. “We see transitioning athletes struggle with a lot of issues, particularly when ‘swimmer’ is how they’ve identified themselves for so long. As athletes, we condition and celebrate aggression. It’s part of sport and ‘not cool’ with Human Resources.
“Identifying an outlet for a competitive nature that doesn’t dissipate with retirement from sport is very important and under -addressed. I’ve been fortunate to navigate that transition in a healthy way, but not entirely without some struggle. Like many others, I bemoan the absence of services to assist our Olympic athletes transitioning into the real world.”
Hall’s transition into the post-competitive-swimming world over the past four-plus years has proven relatively seamless – although he was already involved in some entrepreneurial ventures prior to retirement, so he had a head start.
These days, his company, Hallway Consulting, focuses on the overlap that exists between health care, nutrition and exercise. Those areas are merging as a “prevention” solution to lifestyle diseases that include certain cancers, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. He acknowledges that preventable diseases are taking an enormous toll on an already overburdened health care system.
He is also retained by Myrtha Pools to assist in developing its presence in the aquatic therapy market. A highly reimbursed form of physical therapy that is in very high demand these days, Hall said Myrtha is trying to keep pace with the number of knee and hip replacement surgeries among an aging and often obese Baby Boomer population.
“What’s relevant to swimming community interests is how we can adjoin aquatic therapy programming to enhance USA Swimming club programming sustainability,” Hall said.
Platinum Performance, another Hallway client, focuses exclusively on clinical application and distribution of nutritional therapies. Hall has worked with Platinum Performance since 1999 and currently supports the development, clinical trial process, promotion, launch and distribution of personalized nutritional supplement products by effectively leveraging strategic alliance within the healthcare space.
And last but not least, Hall is the Sports Marketing Director for the Edith Sanford Breast Cancer Foundation, where he just finalized a partnership making it the exclusive charitable beneficiary of the largest all women’s running series in the United States (through Competitor Group International). He also serves on several boards of directors and committees.
“We work with triathlon series Streamline Events and Delmo Sports with Steve Del Monte,” said Hall, who was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2012. “Focused on genomics research, I left the diabetes space to work with an organization that donates 100 percent of what is raised directly to research – an impressive differentiator in today’s crowded not-for-profit landscape. Contact me on LinkedIn if you’d like to host a breast cancer event.”
In addition to his many professional ventures, Hall’s focus is on his family – wife of 17 years Elizabeth and two kids who “love to swim – but I’m not pushing it on them.”
He’s also passionate about his diabetes and alerting people – especially kids and families – to the signs and treatments associated with the disease. He’s worked on behalf of research, treatment and fundraising for the disease.
Diagnosed in 1999 during the height of his training for the 2000 Olympic Trials, Hall said he had to make some major adjustments to his life in order to continue on with his goal of making a second Olympic team.
That’s his message to young athletes who have diabetes – the disease doesn’t have to be a downfall or drawback with careful planning. As an athlete with Type 1 diabetes, he learned there was a glaring deficiency of materials or recommendations available, a sort of “how to” document.
“What I accomplished with Type I diabetes had never been done before, or since,” said Hall, who serves on the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute working with the American College of Sports Medicine to develop guidelines for all levels of sport. “I want to be sure that kids, parents and coaches understand that with proper management, anything is possible, and that simply viewing these conditions as a ‘liability’ is not okay.”
He used his accomplishments in sport to advance outreach and awareness initiatives, initially working with medical device and pharmaceutical companies. He said it proved an unorthodox education, and eventually, he started developing programs and raised a lot of money for diabetes research organizations.
“That led me to serve on the Government Relations Committee for the largest diabetes research organization in the world,” Hall said. “I testified before Senate subcommittees a couple of times, helping to advance policy and guidance documents on how the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should embrace emerging technologies in diabetes management. In 2009, I was invited to join the Sanford Health International Children’s Board, with a task of building 100 new children’s hospitals in rural underserved communities internationally.”
One thing Hall definitely knows is that as a result of his diabetes, he had to work harder – and smarter – than most other swimmers even though he was often labeled and ridiculed as being lazy.
It’s a stigma he works to erase every day – but does acknowledge that because of how he managed his disease, it ultimately prolonged his swimming career.
“I listened to my body, and most of the time I listened to my coach (Mike Bottom),” Hall said. “There’s a difference between the pain of hard work and the pain of injury. I pushed through hard work, not injury. When I needed time off from swimming, I took it. I remained active with cross-training and played other sports. That’s how I swam well for so long.”