RIO de JANEIRO — If you had a son, you would want him to be just like Nathan Adrian.
The guy is smart, funny, respectful and humble. He is quiet, steady, a genuine leader.
Oh, he’s tall and handsome, too, the very picture of America’s best pluralistic and tolerant tendencies. His dad, James, is a retired nuclear engineer; his mom, Cecilia, who comes from Hong Kong, is a nurse.
Oh yeah — Nathan Adrian is an incredible athlete.
On Wednesday, Adrian took bronze in the men’s 100m freestyle, in 47.85 seconds, 27-hundredths back of 18-year-old Kyle Chalmers of Australia, 47.58. Pieter Timmers of Belgium — Belgium! — took silver, in 47.80.
Adrian’s medal came amid what was, more or less, California Golden Bears night at the pool:
Josh Prenot, who studied physics at Berkeley, smartly took silver in the men’s 200m breaststroke. In the men’s 200m backstroke, Ryan Murphy won the first semifinal; Jacob Pebley took third in the next semi; both moved on to Thursday’s final.
And then, Adrian. “Go Bears!” he said.
Adrian’s medal further cements his reputation as one of the greats in American swim history.
When 27-hundredths of a second is the difference between first and third, that is the farthest thing from failure. A gentle reminder to the victory-or-else crowd: Any and every Olympic medal is an achievement to be celebrated.
Indeed, with the gold medal won in Wednesday’s last race, the women’s 4x200m relay, a come-from-behind victory anchored by Katie Ledecky, the U.S. swim team now has 21 medals. That’s already one more than the Americans won in Olympic events at last year’s swim world championships in Kazan, Russia.
The last guy to go back-to-back in the men’s Olympic 100m: Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands, at Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004. Alex Popov did it, too, in 1992 in Barcelona and 1996 in Atlanta.
You have to go back to the likes of Johnny Weissmuller (Paris 1924 and Amsterdam 1928) and Duke Kahanamoku (Stockholm 1912 and Antwerp 1920; there weren’t Games in 1916 because of World War I).
“It’s hard to be firing on all cylinders all the time,” Adrian said after the race. “I’m really proud to be on the podium again.
“It has been done before. Certainly people have repeated as Olympian champions before. But in days of late, it has been hard to step up year after year, and be a world champion or be Pan Pac champion, let alone Olympic champion in the 100m freestyle. It’s the event people want to swim. People train for it. They go really fast.”
Adrian now has six Olympic medals of every color stretching from Beijing in 2008 through Rio in 2016. Four are gold; he has one silver. Expect him to win No. 7, almost surely gold, in the men’s 4x100m medley relay when competition winds down here later this week. He is also swimming in the 50m free and is just as capable as anyone of getting back onto the podium in that race – though because it’s so short it’s also entirely unpredictable.
Earlier at these Rio Games, Adrian anchored the U.S. 4x100m freestyle relay to gold. The U.S. men had won silver in London, edged out by France.
In London, Adrian won the individual 100m free by precisely one-hundredth of a second, swimming 47.52 to edge James Magnussen of Australia, the pre-race favorite among many.
By 2016, two new Australians, Cam McEvoy and the teen Chalmers, had emerged as key challengers. At the Australian Trials, McEvoy went 47.04. That’s half a second faster than Adrian has ever gone in an open 100m free.
Quirky stuff that underscores how interesting swimming, and swimmers, really can be:
McEvoy is a physics student. He wants to be an astronaut.
Adrian is an honors graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, and majored in public health.
Now more numbers, because swimming lends itself to this kind of thing:
In their Sunday relay splits, McEvoy went 47-flat, Adrian 46.97.
In the heats and semifinals, Adrian took a curious path. He qualified 16th of 16 in the prelims, then came back to go 47.83 in his semifinal, the No. 1 qualifier for Wednesday’s final.
Chalmers is the 2015 world junior champion in both the 50m and 100m free. Everyone knew he was a rising force with which to be reckoned. In the semifinals, he turned in a second best-time, 47.88. McEvoy touched in 47.93, third-best.
In Wednesday’s final, Adrian was second at the turn, behind Canada’s Santo Condorelli. Chalmers was seventh.
In the fashion long favored by Michael Phelps, Chalmers poured it on in the last 25 meters, what swimmers call the back half or back end. By about 25 meters, he had passed Adrian; from there, he just kept laying it down.
“I felt I had a pretty solid dive. My turn, OK, I hit a little more of a wave than I wanted to on the way back,” Adrian said later. “And then it’s just about grit, that last 25, 15 meters. You know, in a pool like this, I think that’s just really where the race is won and lost.”
Again, the numbers tell the story:
Adrian swam the final 50 meters in 25.18 seconds.
That’s the difference at the Olympics between gold and bronze.
Timmers, meantime, out in Lane 7, swam a back-end 24.84 to snag silver.
Condorelli finished fourth, McEvoy seventh. The second American in the race, Caeleb Dressel, took sixth.
Chalmers said later, “I knew the back end was my strength. I had a good turn. I could see Santo a body length ahead of me at the turn and I knew I had to come on strong. I train to be a back-end swimmer. I train to come home in 24.5. I managed to come home in it tonight. I was very happy to turn and see that on the board.”
He also said, referring to Adrian, “He is amazing. He won the gold medal in 2012 and to get the bronze medal tonight is incredible for him.
“It’s crazy for me. I was 14 at the last Olympics. I remember driving in the car to training one morning and listening to the 100m freestyle. That was when James Magnussen was the favorite. I remember just being shattered that he had lost. To get up and win tonight was incredible.
He paused. Then he thought again of Adrian, and said, “Massive respect tonight. He’s a great guy.”