By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Monday, March 30, 2020
After the year he’s had, it’s no wonder Nathan Adrian has gained a new perspective on life – and swimming.
It’s a perspective that is constantly shifting and evolving – and it’s also one that reminds him how fortunate and blessed he is to do what he does every day and the life that swimming has given him.
How could he not be?
“At the moment, I am just thankful to still be doing what I love and able to enjoy my job,” he said. “I had always felt this way to some level. However, I think having it almost torn away because of a health scare really gives it more depth and clarity.”
That health scare he’s talking about occurred in late 2018 when Adrian felt swelling and hardness in one of his testicles. After a week, things didn’t improve, so he decided to go to the doctor.
His doctor knew something was awry, and through a series of tests, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and a thorough treatment protocol to address the problem followed quickly.
“First you get an ultrasound, review it with a urologist, and then surgically remove the tumor,” he said. “Through the entire process, I was considered in the ‘good risk’ category, which means that given all the information, we currently know the prognosis was good. That being said, there is always going to be some level of doubt that creeps in here and there.
“The thing with cancer that most people don't know is how much waiting is involved in the process. In a perfect world, we would know what kind of cancer it was right off the bat, gone in to surgically remove the tumor and the lymph nodes that it had spread to and then be done with it all quickly.”
Adrian added that because there is no way to know this information without first taking out the tumor, waiting on pathology, examining further treatment options, opting for the second surgery, getting on the surgeon’s schedule and then doing the second operation, the process of discovery was lengthy.
“Each of those steps takes a week or more just spent waiting around for the next appointment/test result to come in,” he said. “Those times spent waiting were when the doubt creeps into your head.”
Adrian said his return to swimming and training occurred shortly after his first surgery, although he did have a small hiccup after the second surgery.
The time away and a related 15-pound weight loss post-surgery set him back from his normal routine, and he spent most of 2019 working diligently toward regaining his championship form.
“Coming back to practice was a bit rough there for a while because I had to completely reset expectations regarding what training times were good, bad and everywhere in between,” he said. “But I eventually found my form and was able to get in some good training by the summer.”
That regained form earned the three-time Olympian and multiple Olympic gold medalist three relay gold medals at the Pan American Games and a gold and silver relay medal at World Championships.
Now, more than a year removed from the greatest scare of his young life, Adrian said his health is good. He gets an MRI every few months to get the “all-clear” sign, and he takes nothing for granted.
“Health-wise everything is going great,” he said. “As far as swimming is concerned, I am pretty happy with where I am at. There are a few things I need to clean up and be better with in order to be where I need/want to be but I am working through that now.”
At the beginning of March, at the TYR Pro Swim Series event in Des Moines, he and National Team teammate Caeleb Dressel learned that the field is very deep and fast.
Both failed to make the A final in the 100 freestyle – although they both swam among the top times across all finals (they would have been second and third, respectively, in the A final). The duo also went 1-2 (Dressel-Adrian) in the 50 free final.
With all that he’s accomplished in his international career that began by making his first team at 2008 Trials, Adrian said he’s still training and competing because he loves the process.
He said waking up really early when his body is screaming to close his eyes and sleep another three hours is never fun, but putting in work and working on self-improvement never gets old.
“I think it is a really healthy habit and hopefully when my career is eventually over, I can find something else that will fill that void,” said Adrian, who hasn’t put a timetable on the rest of his professional swimming career.
“I never would have imagined that swimming would have taken me to where I am now. It has been a very surreal journey, and I feel very fortunate to have taken part.”
As for his personal health journey with cancer, Adrian said he is grateful for early detection as a key factor in all cancer outcomes – particularly testicular cancer because generally men are less willing to see a doctor if they suspect something is wrong.
“The reason why I am still competing… and dreaming about Olympic Medals is because I saw my doctor so soon after noticing something,” he said. “A testicular tumor, generally speaking, isn't painful and many times goes unnoticed until the metastasis eventually causes symptoms. I feel very fortunate to be where I am and still competing at such a high level.”