Swimming: Adrian racing to eliminate fractions

SINGAPORE - Nathan Adrian just doesn't add up. He's half-Chinese, half-American, not a half-bad swimmer with a 100m freestyle Olympic gold, half-asleep when we meet at 8am and clearly fully crazy.

He's roughly 2m tall, weighs 102kg and has about as much fat on him as Angelina Jolie before breakfast. So, yeah, raising that body on a pull-up bar can take a little effort. Except in training he adds 60kg of weight to himself and then does pull-ups.

How many?

"Five," he says.

Then, as if trying to make us feel better, adds: "Maybe four."

Gee, thanks for the clarification, pal.

Adrian, the London 100m freestyle champion, is not quite the watery half-brother of Usain Bolt. In swimming, the fastest man alive is the 50m champion, a race that is a raw, frothy explosion of fast-twitch fibre. The 100m is subtler - it is, says Adrian, about "energy management"; it is also about tactics. You can go out fast, he says, and hold, or start slower and accelerate. It's a fine balance: miss your moment, miss a gold.

Adrian's father was a nuclear engineer, his coach an electrical engineer but he's a mathematician. He has no official degree, yet his entire life is an obsession with fractions: One-tenth of a second. Two-tenths. Three-tenths. You wonder if the soundtrack of his dreams is tick, tick, tick.

To get rid of fractions is to get faster. And to get faster is his mission as an athlete. His PB in the 100m is 47.52 but to win again in Rio 2016, he says, he needs to be roughly at 47.3. "There's no room for error," he says because errors adds fractions and he can't afford them.

Discipline is his razor as he strives to shave off those fractions. He has to wake early - 5.05am. He has to fuel himself - "5,000-8,000 calories" a day in five small meals. He has to watch videos of himself and others, studying efficiency and body position.

It's fun listening to swimmers, for they are the most elemental of athletes; earthy folks who bring their fire to water. They speak, as Adrian does, a liquid language, talking about "grabbing" water, as if it were a solid object you hold and pull yourself along with.

Grabbing water - a mystery to dry-land folks - is about technique. So is your timing at the turn, your entry into the water, your kick underwater when you dive in. Technique can never be perfect but you keep perfecting it, even if changing the way you swim is hard. As he says: "It's like trying to change your walk." But technique is how you find your fractions, like a smoother turn that's just 0.1 second faster.

Except right now Adrian is a mechanic slightly discontent with the instrument that is his body. And so he says: "I'm working on hip rotation, on the timing of my breath, on my line - ensuring I don't wiggle". Even his start wasn't "great this year" and it meant he was more than fractionally off. At the recent Pan Pacific Championships, he timed 48.30 in the 100m and smilingly groans at the memory. It was only slow enough for silver.

Timing is what defines Adrian's existence: He must not just find those fractions, he must find them every four years when an Olympics comes. It is a search both endless and arduous. He has to wake up at 5.05am even when there's no improvement; he has to invest himself even when the stopwatch only gives him bad news. He will practise and plateau, but he must still go on. He has to live, he says evocatively, a "patient" life of "unwavering optimism".

He does it because there is no other way. And because he has proof it works.

In 2010, he says, he had his "breakout year", winning four golds at the Pan Pacs. In 2011, he worked just as hard, yet won no individual medals. In 2012, at the US trials, he made no great progress in his timings. And yet in late July in 2012, at the London Olympics, "physiologically and mentally it came together" as he won one individual gold and a silver and gold in the relays.

The boy named Ghar-Jun, translated by him as Little Pony in Cantonese, finally galloped.

Now there are 701 days left for Rio 2016; 701 days for the world to prepare; 701 days for Adrian to do his pull-ups in search of those fractions. But maybe he'll wear the pain because few people know more about the precious power of fractions than him. After all, in London, when he won gold, this was his margin of victory:

0.01 of a second.


This article was first published on September 4, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.