For swim fans of a certain vintage, Gary Hall Jr. was Michael Phelps.
Only with a bigger personality.
With more style.
With more swagger.
Hall Jr. used to waltz onto a pool deck dressed like Apollo Creed in Rocky III, blowing kisses and kissing his biceps and hoping desperately that persona would be enough to confront everything that goes into traveling 50 meters in 20-some seconds.
Once the stuff was off and it was just Hall Jr. on the blocks, it was easier to see him for what he was -- the fastest man in the world at that moment. It is quite remarkable when you think about just how thin of a line it is between fast and fastest at the Olympics.
"In my two individual gold-medal races, the cumulative margin of victory was 1/100th of a second," Hall Jr. said when we talked a couple of days ago. "Think about that, 1/100th. That is incredible. That is unbelievable if you think about it. And that is how close these races are in the sprints, and what is crazier is it is usually the same folks touching the wall and medaling."
What is also true and somewhat crazier is those people are not Americans, not in sprinting, not in the men's events, not right now. The American sprinter, if not dead, is most definitely an underdog.
And this, quite frankly, feels un-American.
We are the country of Hall Jr. and Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi and Johnny Weismuller, who are the legends of the speed events in swimming. Now the Australians and French are faster. This is blasphemy. Sprinting should be our Olympic domain given our propensity for short attention spans and immediate gratification. We are the country of drive-thrus and TiVo-ing through commercials. We speed date and speed read. We like everything fast and preferably faster.
So why aren't we better at this?
This is the question Olympic hopeful Nathan Adrian and I were discussing on the pool deck a couple of weeks ago at a meet in Indianapolis. There are two things you need to know about Adrian:
1) He's America's best hope to medal in the sprint events in London.
2) He's pretty awesome in that laid-back, Cal-student, swimming way of not quite realizing just how good he is.
"I am trying to bring it back," he said without a hint of bravado. "I am trying my hardest to make it America's event again."
So why did it stop being our event?
"That is good question," Adrian said. "I think it's maybe a little bit of a bigger deal in some other countries to be a sprinter. For instance, France, to be a French 100 freestyler, you are a household name. In Australia, you know, to be a 50 or 100 guy, you are a household name. Look at Cesar Cielo in Brazil, he is their Olympic hero. It is a big deal."
It is still a big deal here, too, or as big of a deal as anything can be in the US of A when we are not the best at it. We tend to like winners, after all.
At the World Championships in Shanghai, Australia and France finished ahead of the US in the 4x100-meter men's freestyle relay.
In the 100-meter freestyle, it was Australia (gold), Canada (silver), France (bronze).
In the 50, it was Brazil, Italy and France.
And what the Australians did at their Olympic trials was just nasty. The thing about Olympic swimming is you cannot simply be the fastest swimmer in, say, Bahrain. To qualify for the Olympics, you have to make an A cut. Some countries don't even have a single person making the A cut. Some countries might have two.
"Australia," Adrian said, "They had six."
For perspective this means all six members of their relay team are fast enough to swim the event at the Olympics. This is insane for no other reason than to find six people wired for this kind of swimming.
Sprinting is like playing goalie in hockey or being the closer in baseball, it requires a certain personality type to be successful. In sprinting, it is not an absence of fear. It is a willingness to dive into the fear and all of its accompanying symptoms -- adrenaline, panic -- and flail away at it, relying on exhaustive training and guts to get you through an event that on its best day takes 20-point-something seconds.
"Yes, it does take an uninhibited approach in a lot of ways," Hall Jr. said. "I will, sometimes, give a dismissive response 'Oh, I was running on adrenaline.' The truth is it is a very methodical approach, the training, the detail. Once you are in the arena, though, it is a little bit chest bumping, kind of primal, alpha male demonstration."
This feels like the right time to mention Adrian's butt, more specifically his bare butt and how we came to be talking about it at that meet in Indianapolis.
He swam with a slit up his swimsuit.
"It was my whole butt crack," Adrian said. "I was ending over on the block and feeling the snap. I was bending over. Well, I mean what could I do? It was near take your mark. I am not going to stop. There was a split second when I was like 'Whatever, I am just going with it.'"
This is exactly what Hall Jr. was talking about needing in sprints, and at least partially why Adrian is so good at them. He rolls with things, which is what you have to do in an event where four years of training comes down to 1/100th of a second. It is a paralyzing thought unless you are one of those crazies that love the chaos.
Adrian is one of those crazies.
"It's just really fun. It fits my personality well," Adrian said. "Like you said, America has a short attention span, I have a really short attention span and (this event) is great (for that)."
The 100-meter freestyle is start, breakout, turn, breakout, finish.
"There is not as much of a buffer. I like that," Adrian said. "That makes me crazy, right. I know, I know."
Doing the 400-meter individual medley is crazy. It is grueling.
The 50 and 100-meter freestyle events require a different kind of guts, the kind seen by Spitz and Biondi, Weissmuller and Hall Jr. and lacking since them.
So is the American sprinter dead? Or is he just an underdog ready to break out in London and take back this very American event?
"I don't know," he said with a laugh. "I don't know. It's tough. Every event is getting faster, not just sprinting. Sprinting has been used as kind of an example but even in the events Michael wins, he wins by a little less every year. The world is plain and simple getting faster. But, like I said, I am trying."
And for swim fans of this vintage, he is our best hope in the speed events.