Bremerton native Nathan Adrian will be front and center Sunday when he begins his second Olympic Games with the 400-meter freestyle relay in London.
If, as expected, he swims the anchor leg of one of the most anticipated races in the next two weeks, Adrian will be one of the most-watched athletes in London.
“I am extremely excited for the relay,” Adrian said via email from Team USA’s domestic training camp in Knoxville, Tenn., last week.
The team traveled from Knoxville to Vichy, France, for its overseas camp before arriving in London this week.
“I am excited that it is the first big event,” said Adrian, who trained as a youth with Tacoma Swim Club. “It is just a great way to start the meet and set the tone for the rest of the week.”
Adrian watched one of the most dramatic relay wins in Olympic history from the top row of the swimming venue at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Adrian was part of the team in the preliminaries, but was relegated to being a spectator for the finals. He watched anchor Jason Lezak help the U.S. shock France with a stunning come-from-behind win to give the Americans and Adrian a gold medal (any participant in a relay, including prelims, receives a medal).
Adrian has taken over the role of anchor in the past two major international competitions. He helped the U.S. win gold in the 400 medley relay and a bronze in the 400 freestyle relay at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, China. Adrian or Cullen Jones, who went 1-2 in the 100 free at the U.S. trials in Omaha, Neb., are likely choices to be in the medley relay.
Adrian and Jones would also seem to be locks for the 400 free relay, with candidates for the other legs including Ricky Berens, Matt Grevers, Jimmy Feigen, and Lezak.
The United States has traditionally dominated the 400 free relay, one of swimming’s glamour events.
“The Olympics is going to be as much pressure as you can get as an athlete, so I really don’t feel like it is going to be any different because of what has happened in the past,” Adrian said.
Following the relay, Adrian will get a day off before competing in his only individual event, the 100 freestyle, on Tuesday.
Adrian is ranked fourth in the world in the 100 and 50 freestyles. He won’t swim the 50 after finishing a disappointing third to Jones and Anthony Ervin at the trials.
Adrian’s time of 48.10 seconds in the 100 at the trials was the fourth fastest in the world this year.
“I feel like I can still swim a little bit faster,” Adrian said, “Not quite sure how much faster, but there is a little bit more speed left in me to still coax out with a little bit of (speed) work and proper rest.”
Adrian, however, isn’t concerned with what the stopwatch says.
“The Olympics is a focus on getting first, second or third,” Adrian said. “Time is fairly irrelevant because it is all about medals and trying to add to the total medal count for Team USA.”
Four-time Olympic gold medalist Gary Hall Jr. wouldn’t bet against Adrian, his former training partner at The Race Club in Florida.
Adrian left his studies at the University of California for a year in 2007 to prepare for the 2008 trials and the Beijing Games.
“He can medal,” Hall said of Adrian’s chances in London. “That’s a pretty good bet if I’m an oddsmaker. I’d feel comfortable with that one. I wouldn’t say at all he’s a long shot on the gold medal. I think he’s right there. He’s done the work, done everything he’s supposed to do.”
In the 100, Adrian will be chasing heavily favored James Magnussen of Australia, Cesar Cielo of Brazil and France’s Yannick Agnel. American teammate Jones is also a contender.
Cielo, the defending Olympic champion in the 50 and current world-record holder in the 100 (46.91), has seen his stock drop. Cielo and two Brazilian teammates tested positive for a banned diuretic in 2011, but escaped punishment when the Court of Arbitration for Sport issued a warning.
That didn’t sit well with other swimmers.
“Very few people think Cesar Cielo can be beat,” Hall said. “Most people want him to be beat. Nathan is probably at the top of that list. Of all those people that want to see Cesar beat, they want to see Nathan win just because he is what is good about the sport.”
In the meantime, Magnussen shifted the international attention from Cielo to himself by winning the 100 free at last year’s world championships and swimming the fastest time of the year, 47.10, at the Australian team trials in March.
Magnussen has been deemed by many swimming analysts — and himself — as the man to beat. Teammate James Roberts goes in with the second-fastest time (47.63), followed by Agnel (48.02) and Adrian.
Unlike Magnussen, Adrian’s not making predictions. Cal coach Dave Durden said that’s not in Adrian’s makeup.
“He’s someone that doesn’t bring on a lot of the bravado or brashness that sprint athletes may have or are characterized to have,” Durden said.
But the competitor in Adrian comes out when he steps on the starting block.
“He absolutely wants to beat you,” Durden said. “That’s what he thrives on. He’ll shake your hand before the race and afterwards and give you a smile. But when that guy is on the block ”
Hall figured all along that Adrian was headed for big things.
We’ll find out just how big in the next few days.