Like everyone else, Nathan Adrian was jumping in disbelief and joy when Jason Lezak reeled in the French swimmer to claim gold for the U.S. during the 400 freestyle relay at the 2008 Olympics.
Adrian had a little more reason to be excited than most people, though. He had swam in the preliminary heats for the Americans the previous day, and as a result of Lezak's Herculean effort, took home a gold medal, too.
But the 23-year-old Bremerton, Wash., native is no longer satisfied to swim in prelims, or just to win medals in relays for that matter. He now wants to win head-to-head against the world's best sprinters.
"I was incredibly excited and living in the moment and riding that wave of excitement," he said, recalling that Beijing moment. "It did serve as a little bit of a motivation factor. As incredible as it was to be in the position I was in, I'm hungry for more."
Since those 2008 Games, Adrian has separated from the pack of talented U.S. swimmers and established himself as the fastest American in the pool. He'll look to retain that title and qualify for the London Games when the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials return to Omaha from June 25 to July 2.
Adrian's journey to Beijing in 2008 was an unusual one, as he needed a little luck, some extra guts and an incredible final swim to make the team during the Omaha Olympic Trials.
The sprints tend to be dominated by older, mature swimmers. Adrian came to Omaha as a 19-year-old freshman at Cal-Berkeley, without much expected of him. "I went in very much an underdog," he said.
He finished sixth in the 50 free. If he could finish as well in the 100 free, where the top six are considered members of the 400 free relay, he'd earn a ticket to Beijing.
But during the semifinal heats in the 100, Adrian finished tied for ninth. The top eight advanced to the finals. It appeared Adrian's Olympic dreams would have to wait four years.
But immediately after making the 100 final, Ryan Lochte decided to scratch and save energy for other swims. That required Adrian and the other swimmer tied for ninth, Alex Righi, to come back for a swim-off to determine who'd get the coveted final spot.
"I really had to lay it on the line," Adrian said.
Adrian won the duel by nine-hundredths of a second. And then the next night, he finished a surprising fourth in the finals to earn a relay spot for Beijing.
Swimming the lead-off leg, Adrian helped the U.S. team set a world record in the prelims before Michael Phelps, Cullen Jones, Garrett Weber-Gale and Lezak came back the next day to smash it during that unforgettable final.
Adrian's new motivation showed after the Games. In 2009, he won both the 50 and 100 at the national championships and anchored the country's gold medal-winning 400 relay at the world championships. The next year, he defended his national championships in the sprints and also won both events at the Pan Pacific Championships, a major international meet.
During the 2011 world championships, Adrian took a little step back, finishing sixth in the 100 and fourth in the 50. Adrian said he made a miscalculation in the amount of rest he needed going into the meet, a mistake he hopes will serve him as he prepares for 2012.
"Every now and then, it's OK to have a down year to build the anticipation and motivation for the next year," he said.
While he comes into the Omaha Trials as the top-rated U.S. sprinter, Adrian said he's taking nothing for granted. Many of the sprint stars from four years ago are still around, including Lezak, Jones, Weber-Gale, Matt Grevers and Nick Brunelli. Adrian knows from his last experience in Omaha that there's little margin for error at the Trials.
"The second you get comfortable is the second someone beats you by a tenth and you're stuck at home."
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