When Nathan Adrian gets into the starting blocks for the 100-meter freestyle next week in Omaha, Nebraska, the other swimmers lined up alongside him will be his competitors, obstacles who will try to prevent him from reaching a goal months in the making.
But once the race ends, everything does a 180. No longer will they be rivals. Several of them will become teammates, all with one unified goal: Olympic relay gold in Rio.
So it will go at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, which begin Sunday. The top two finishers in the 100 freestyle will qualify for the Olympic individual race, while the top six will make Team USA’s 4x100 freestyle relay team – four starters, two alternates. The qualifying heats and semifinals are Wednesday, and the final is Thursday.
It’s an interesting dynamic, one that Adrian has been a part of in each of the last two Olympic trials. The three-time Olympic gold medalist was part of the winning 4x100 freestyle relay at Beijing in 2008 and the 4x100 medley at London in 2012, as well as part of the 4x100 freestyle relay that won silver at London. (He also won an individual gold medal in the 100 freestyle at the London Games).
“In the 100 freestyle I obviously see these guys as competition,” Adrian said during a break in his workout in Berkeley, California. “That innate competitive drive wants me to beat all of them. That’s the fun of the sport, right? To race and to try to win.”
But at the same time, Adrian – who is the top seed in the 100 freestyle at 48.00 seconds – knows there’s more at stake than just his own Olympic hopes. So in a way, the faster and tougher the finals are, the better Team USA as a whole could be.
“There’s this kind of air of, ‘Let’s do this together, guys. Let’s see how fast all of us can go as a group,’” said Adrian, who was on a call to promote Citi’s #StandForProgress initiative. “Obviously, probably the first thing I look up at the clock at is what my time was, but the second thing you look up and you want to see is you want to see anywhere from three to five other really, really fast times that you know that you can walk out in an Olympic final and be competitive for a medal with.”
Adrian has been preparing for the trials for the last nine months, so at this point he isn’t training so much as he is trying to maintain his peak. On this particular day of workouts, Adrian said he had “a little tiny bit of fast stuff” planned, followed by a cooldown and recovery.
“I usually think of training as kind of putting your nose to the grindstone and working really hard, going into the pool early every day and all that good stuff,” he said. “But by now, all the work is really done and we’ve got to really just let our bodies recover from everything we’ve done to it over the last nine months or so, and we’re just sharpening the tools.”
Two of his potential competitors in the 100 freestyle final could be Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Phelps, who is seeded second, and eighth-seed Lochte have combined for 33 Olympic medals – including 23 gold medals. While it always seems Phelps and Lochte are the two swimmers that move the needle and bring in the ratings come Olympic season, Adrian doesn’t feel like he – or anyone else – is in their shadow.
“Honestly, in the same way that I feel like I want all the other competitors in the 100 freestyle to come along with me and try to put up some world-class times, I think Michael and Ryan have just pushed the popularity of the sport as a whole forward, and therefore helped us all,” Adrian said. “I want them to swim at their absolute highest level to try to win some gold medals again.”