Exclusive Q&A: Nathan Adrian reveals 'secret sauce' behind Team USA swimming's relay success

Five-time Olympic gold medallist Nathan Adrian talks on how beating cancer has helped coping with coronavirus, the effect Michael Phelps had on him, and how he copes mentally with pressure.

By Olympic Channel

United States freestyle specialist Nathan Adrian is one of the most respected names in swimming.

Not only is the five-time gold medallist hoping to compete at his fourth Olympic Games in Tokyo, but he also beat cancer in 2019 to reclaim his place at the top table of international swimming.

In an Instagram live call with Olympics the Washington native reveals how his battle with cancer has prepared him to cope with the changing world during the COVID-19 pandemic, how Michael Phelps made him feel like he could beat anyone, how he stays mentally strong through adversity and what the diet of a world champion swimmer looks like.

Olympic Channel: Tell us a little bit about where you are at the moment and how training'is going...

Nathan Adrian: I'm in Oakland, California, and training's going as well as you can reasonably expect right now. Obviously very different. But honestly, it's been an awesome learning experience because in so many different facets of our life, I think you sort of see what brought on success in the past and you feel like you have to emulate that to recreate your own success. And here we are in this super weird training environment. I am not able to do a 'double', which is, you know, what swimmers are really known for. We're known for waking up at 5:00 a.m., swimming from six to eight and then swimming in the afternoon or something. And here we are. I'm not able to do that. I don't hate it! But now I get to kind of take that energy that I would otherwise be using in the pool at 6:00 a.m. and put it somewhere else. I'm using that a little bit more in the weight room, and that's a different paradigm for me. So I've been enjoying that. I have seen some pretty awesome results in terms of gaining some muscle, gaining some strength. And hopefully we'll get a little bit more water time, especially in a 50 metre Olympic-sized pool. And then we'll see what the results end up being.

OC: I think you like set up your own gym in your garage. Is that right?

NA: Yeah. So actually, we were right here, when Bay Area went shelter-in-place. That was one of the first places in the United States that went shelter-in-place. I was like, I need to get myself some weights. If I can't get in the weight room, I'm going to go crazy. And I ordered them. So that was good. But it still took five weeks to get here.

OC: What does a day in the life of Nathan Adrian and COVID-19 look like at the moment and tell us how you've re-calibrated training-wise?

NA: I swim Monday through Saturday. Our current pool times are 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and given that situation are our quality days are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, with Wednesday and Saturday being a little bit more recovery-based training. So I want to be really good on those days that I'm that I'm training fast. So I actually just sleep in and get a nutritious meal and do everything I can to swim back in the water. And then I lift afterwards on Monday and Friday. And then on Wednesday I actually wake up, get my lift in, and then I actually own and operate a small swim school up nearby in the Bay Area with with an old training buddy of mine. So Wednesdays I don't swim with the team. I get up, I lift. I do what I want to do in the weight room. And I hit it pretty hard. And then I go up to the swim school up in San Rafael and I get my recovery training and up there.

OC: How many have calories are you putting down a day, and have you had to change how you're eating with your training regimen changing overall?

NA: Right when we began the shelter-in-place, we did take about a week out of the water just to kind of let our emotions settle a little bit. And during that time, I was not good about my eating. I got distracted. I was working up at the swim school to try to get prepared for whatever semblance of a teaching season and summer season that we could muster together, given the circumstances. I lost almost 10 pounds (4.5 kg) right away. I just kind of forgot to eat. I was like so distracted, I was working at computer, building a fence and all that sort of stuff. So after that, I actually tried to put that 10 pounds (4.5 kg) on as quickly as possible... It was just eating a lot of calorie-dense foods when I could. Now I'm sort of shifting gears.

We're a year out now. So every week or every two weeks, I try to engage just a little bit more because those first couple weeks, it was kind of I was still tired. I was still emotionally like, holy crap, I can't believe what's going on in the world. I had to wrap my head around this. So I was still not engaging fully in swimming. And then two weeks later, I was like, 'All right, I'm going to be better at this aspect of swimming. And then two weeks later, I'm better at this aspect of swimming', and diet is coming along. You know, I'm definitely better than I was about a month ago, but now is about the time that I'm kind of substituting out some that processed sugar for a little bit more whole grains. As we go to the grocery store, I'm making sure I take that lap around the outside, get myself a whole lot of fruits and veggies, and then even get some frozen ones just because you're in the current environment. I don't love going the grocery store as as often as I used to. I mean, I was multiple times a week before. I'm pretty risk-averse when it comes to this sort of stuff so I'm having some frozen veggies as well.

OC: How has this challenge been so different for you and Dave Durden, your coach, who has been part of your life for a long time. This is something that's really out of your hands...

NA: Totally. It is. Honestly, I was prepared for this because I got diagnosed with cancer a little over a year ago and previously having had this illusion of control, thinking that I am doing everything in the world to be healthy. And then all of a sudden this kind of just freak genetic accident happens to me. And I have testicular cancer. And I'm not trying to encourage people to not care because because that's not my message here. But you do have to understand that: control what you can control, control your lifestyle, because that contributes to these factors such as cancer risk. But sometimes people are genetically programmed, as we know, to have cancer. That translates almost perfectly to what's going on right now. It was like, 'Oh wow, COVID is spreading really fast in China. Oh, wow. We all of a sudden have a case in in the Bay Area.' I remember my friend was working downtown in San Francisco and sent me pictures of that cruise ship that was coming in into the Bay Area. And we were like, 'Wow, like this this is real. This is this is happening.' And through all of that, it's just like, 'What can I do?' I can only train. I can only do my best to try to find my way to the pool, try to find my way to the weight room, just act as if the Olympics are going to occur on time.

Once it was delayed, taking that week off, that was me and Dave taking care of my emotions. It was crazy. We got kicked out of our pool at Cal [University of California, Berkeley], we were trying to train at my pool up in San Rafael and it was worlds different. We're talking country club, no gutters, basically strings for lane lines versus Cal's pool that is 10 feet deep, it has massive gutters and it has massive lane lines to eat all those waves up, and it has Olympic style starting blocks. So that was stressful. It was like, 'Oh man, other people in other countries, these competitors, if they're not hit as bad in their country, they're going to be doing what they normally do. How are we ever gonna compete? But you've got to reel that back in, because that is a positive feedback loop of just bad, bad news and anxiety. Dave did a really good job of saying 'Hey, this is what we're working on and we can do it in this training environment.' And that was really important even through the cancer thing, through the COVID thing. I think always having something to be able to work on, to feel like I'm making progress in some aspect of my life is really important for my mental health.

OC: In addition to the physical challenge, what were some of the tools that you used mentally and emotionally to get back to your best swimming?

NA:I was lucky because I am a member of USA Swimming, who after 2016, actually recognised that mental health is an important initiative in the Olympic space and athletics as a whole. So they actually created a fund for the 2016 Olympians to use for therapy. And I was like, 'Why would I not take advantage of this?' I'd heard such great things about doing therapy. And I through all of that I actually already had a relationship with a psychiatrist and I still talk to him every two weeks now. Sport is a very traditionally hyper-masculine thing. And to be tough is to not have to talk about your feelings is to wake up, and even though I don't want to go to the pool, is to drag your butt out of bed and go do it anyway because you know that's what you need and it's all going to pay off in the end. And now works to a certain extent until it doesn't. And I think that that, until it doesn't part, is something that I always wanted to avoid. And even beyond that I began those conversations and continue this conversation because I do feel like there is a lot of times in issue transitioning from professional sports to whatever it may be after that sports career is done.

I don't necessarily see myself training and competing at Paris 2024... if it was in L.A., I think I would have made maybe a run for it because swimming in front of a domestic crowd would have just been unbelievable. I get shivers even thinking about it. So don't release any hype videos anytime soon for me please! So I knew that was something that I wanted to be equipped to manage when the time comes. And hey, it worked out well because I had that accessibility through a very difficult time in my life.

OC: At London 2012. What went through your head as you made the final turn in the final of the 100 metre freestyle which you won?

NA: I went out as smooth as I wanted to be. I was like a metronome hitting those stroke rates. And I knew James [Magnussen] was gonna be really good on the second 50 [metre]. I wanted to make sure that I didn't jump on it right off the go off that wall, so he got a little bit ahead of me and then at that 25 [metre] mark, I got a little bit ahead of him, and it went back and forth, and then I got him by a hundredth of a second. It really couldn't have gone better for me in that particular scenario. James had been swimming incredible the entire two years leading up to that and had been the favourite by a massive margin, and that race right there was the best time by half a second, which is a huge, huge margin in swimming. 47.5 seconds. It was just everything came together just so perfectly for that race. It's kind of the reason why you keep swimming, it's because you'd never know when all those different things you are going to work click together at the same time. And for me it happened at the right time at the Olympic final in the hundred freestyle.

There is this tendency, this illusion of control...I think a lot of athletes, and I think that may or may not be one of the reasons why we struggle as we transition to normal life after athletics, because we really think that through our hard work and our dedication, those things are proven to be successful and translate directly to the business world or whatever it may be that you pursue. I think the probabilistic mindset of saying, 'Yes, I'm going to do absolutely everything I can. I am going to wake up early. I'm going to get out of bed and go swim. And in the weight room, even when I'm tired. What is going to be the best thing for me to do today? And then follow those instructions even when it's hard. Because at the end of the day, I want the best chance possible to win a gold medal. I think if you frame it appropriately and in that way, whatever happens next year, as long as I take that mentality and approach to my my swimming throughout this next training year, I'm not going to fail, because I'm doing everything I can to give myself the best opportunity. There are just so many externalities we can't control. We can't control what other people are doing. What if we get completely shut down? I can't train in a pool the entire year worst case scenario... To put that all on myself would be a whole lot of burden, and I really just don't think that would be fair to myself. So I'm going to evaluate my performance off of what I did in order to prepare and execute that race strategy.

OC: People tend to see swimming as an individual sport because you're by yourself in the lane. But you've won multiple golds in the relays and you've been a part of this U.S. swimming tradition that's really carried on for decades now. What does 'team' mean to you and how important has it been for you to be a part of the teams that you have?

NA: I like the idea of 'stronger together' and in swimming it is that interesting paradigm of it being thought of as this individual sport. But as I had actually mentioned earlier, but during tough training days, there is nothing that gets you through a tough training day than having a teammate there to go through it together with. And you're racing them. And maybe while you're racing them, you don't have such nice thoughts about them. You want to beat them. You want to make them regret the day they even thought they could compete against you. But as you get out of the water I want to give him a hug. But they made me better by being there, and I hope that I made them better by being there and competing against them. The other thing I think about as actually as we transition from Olympic trials to the Olympics. I mean, Olympic trials, you talk about a stressful meet, you're competing against some of your good buddies, but if you don't beat them, you're not on the team, and if they don't beat you they're not on the team. And the people who would make eventually make it to the team, you know they're tough, man. You know they are ready to go, you know physiologically they are tough. You know, mentally, emotionally, they are tough. And there's no one in the world that you'd rather want to walk out behind the blocks with, with Team USA and an American flag on their cap, because we're going to fight, and that is our secret sauce. It's really awesome.

OC: After swimming alongside Michael Phelps for so many years, the greatest swimmer that's ever lived, did you feed off each other?

Absolutely. He was such a awesome person to be a part of a relay with. You're talking about intimidation factor, you want to walk out with Michael Phelps listening to his music with a hood on! That was good. There's something special and it's this sort of confidence that just exudes from him, and it's like confidence, not arrogance, it's walking up there saying: 'I'm going to execute my race plan. I'm going to go out and I'm going to do everything I can to put all of us in a good place to to win this relay.' It's really awesome.

OC: Your motto has always been that you want to work hard and if you can see results from yourself, that you're going to continue to keep going. You said that maybe Paris 2024 isn't a reality for you, but how do you set goals for this next year?

It's still just there. I still just wake up excited about making myself better and doing something today that's gonna make me a better in the pool.The great thing is that I'm not in New York right now, so I can actually, go to the gym or go to my little home gym or go outside and do some core exercises. If I have a little longer break later I'm going to hop on a bike and I'm still excited to do it. And I just feel really lucky to be able to look forward to my job in that way. Each and every day.