Every year Kitsap County sends a significant number of swimmers to state.
The area is in a renaissance period. The Bainbridge boys won three consecutive 3A state championships between 2017 and 2019, while the North Kitsap girls won a 2A title in 2018, the Kingston boys took home a 2A crown in 2017, and the Olympic boys won it all in 2A 2019.
Those great teams have produced a few Olympic hopefuls who are looking to follow in the footsteps of those who came before them. Between 2000 and 2006, Kitsap high schools produced four Olympic swimmers, including Bainbridge’s Emily Silver and Bremerton’s Tara Kirk Sell and Dana Kirk; and the most recent graduate, who has also been the most successful — five-time gold medalist Nathan Adrian, a 2006 graduate of Bremerton.
And there’s no one rooting harder for them than Adrian, who joined the Kitsap Athletic Roundtable in July to talk about the life of an Olympic athlete during the coronavirus pandemic, cancer, his experiences at the Olympics and growing up in Kitsap.
Adrian, who can still be found in Washington’s record books with the best-ever state meet time in the 200-yard freestyle, fondly recalled his time in high school when Olympic swimmers and a future NBA player were roaming the halls of Bremerton, and noted the area still has great athletes.
“That talent is still there,” Adrian said.
These days, Adrian lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it’s safe to say his swimming career has taken some unusual turns since winning four medals at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.
The biggest shock came in January of last year when he announced that he had testicular cancer. He underwent surgery shortly after to remove the testicle to find out the type of cancer he had.
“Cancer is not a black and white thing, there’s a lot of gray area,” he said.
Adrian had to have a few lymph nodes removed, but the cancer had not spread enough to necessitate chemotherapy. The surgeries impeded his ability to do certain things physically, such as flex his abdominals or fire his glute muscles, which made getting back into form difficult.
He was able to race just a few months later, finishing fourth in the 100-meter free at the Tyr Pro Series in May 2019. Adrian felt mixed emotions after that performance — overjoyed to be racing again, but the perfectionist in him was miffed to have not won.
“It’s OK, though, because I still love racing, and I still want to win and that motivation is still there,” Adrian said.
All signs were pointing to another successful Olympic performance for Adrian in 2020, but the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak pushed the games, which would have kicked off late last week under normal circumstances, back a year.
Adrian was in Colorado Springs with the rest of the team when the Olympics were postponed in late March. The mentality of the team at the time, he said, was nothing but “eat, sleep, train, repeat” as they went full throttle toward their physical summit.
Though disappointed, Adrian felt that it was “abundantly clear” that it was the right move. And he even was able to find a little humor in the situation as he saw teammates begin to get a little lax about training.
“It was kind of funny because you’d start seeing people have ice cream in the dining hall, or maybe even a cookie,” he said.
Over the course of the hour Adrian spent with the roundtable, he fielded questions from those tuned in to the video chat. Among them was a question about what it’s like to be in the Olympic Village, which elicited another humorous response.
“It feels like you’re sort of living in a half-finished IKEA,” he said.
The exact nature of the villages vary from city to city, but they tend to resemble a college campus full of buildings with dorm rooms. There is generally a relative dearth of furnishings, which can give the rooms an empty feel. Every country that has enough athletes to fill a building gets its own, and athletes only stay there while competing. Once they’re done, they move into a hotel for the remainder of their time in the Olympic city.
Adrian experienced that in 2008 in Beijing when he swam only on the first day, and then spent the rest of the time watching, along with the rest of the world, as Michael Phelps won eight gold medals and set seven world records in perhaps the greatest single Olympic performance ever.
The 2008 games were also memorable for Adrian because he got to dine with the U.S. basketball team, which featured LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, Jason Kidd and Dwight Howard, among others.
“It was cool how down to earth those guys were,” Adrian said.
To close out the evening, Adrian was asked to reflect on growing up in Kitsap County.
Now that he lives in northern California, he regularly sees grass that easily turns yellow and brown in the relatively hot and dry conditions. He remembered with warmth the “amazing” summers that typically stayed moderate in temperature and saw the sun stay out past 9 p.m. He also said he’d take driving through the woods on Highway 16 over being stuck in traffic on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge any day.
And he always gets his turn to brag when friends and neighbors return from popular California destination Lake Tahoe and they rave about how beautiful the lake is. Adrian responds, “Yes, but every lake in Washington looks like this.”
“It’s really extraordinary, and I feel very lucky to have been raised in a place like that,” Adrian said.