My Perfect Adventure
Swimmer Nathan Adrian won his first gold medal in Beijing, then collected two more in London, plus a silver.
The strapping 24-year-old is also a bit of a heartthrob. His boyish good looks (his mother is Chinese) and happy-go-lucky charm quickly captured attention nationwide, garnering a Twitter following as fervent and vocal as his bleacher fans.
His fame bumped up a notch during this summer’s 100m freestyle race, which Australia’s James Magnussen was widely favored to win. By a hundredth of a second, though, Adrian reached past Magnussen, making him the first American man to win the event since Matt Biondi did it in 1988—the same year Adrian was born. Later, with Ryan Lochte, he anchored Michael Phelps’ final Olympic swim—the 4x100m medley relay, helping the team to gold.
Before he was an Olympian, Adrian swam for the University of California, Berkeley (where he was pre-med) and, over three years, became a five-time individual NCAA champion. He plans to compete at the 2016 Olympic trials for a spot in Rio—but has lots of traveling and exploring to do before then.
In this interview, he tells Outside that, more than anywhere else, he wants to go to Thailand; that his perfect day would involve boats, skis, and a hot tub; and why Rome is the best place he’s ever been.
Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who’d be there, and what would you do?
I’d wake up a little before dawn in a huge cabin up near Lake Tahoe. It’d be summer, so the weather would be around 90 degrees. My entire group of friends, along with my family, would be there with me. We’d cook a big breakfast before going out on boats and playing on the water all day. After dark, there would be a night-skiing adventure with everyone up on the mountain, capped off with a huge dinner and a giant hot tub in the snow.
If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go?
I have always wanted to go to Thailand. I have heard that it is beautiful and I love tropical locations as a vacation spot. I also enjoy experiencing different cultures.
Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
I enjoyed going to Rome. We had a world championship meet there in 2009 and I stayed an extra week to enjoy what the city had to offer. I swam terribly, which usually puts a bad taste in my mouth about any particular location. But I was surrounded by such great people, including my teammates, that I was able to really enjoy my extra time there.
If you could have lunch with any athlete or adventurer, who would it be and why?
I have always wanted to meet Richard Branson. He would be incredibly interesting just to chat with. I’d want to hear about his success and how he went about doing what he does. I enjoy his thirst for adventure and his candid nature.
What’s something you can’t travel without?
My lame answer is contact lenses. I am completely debilitated when my vision isn't corrected. Also my smartphone—and not for Twitter and other social-networking reasons, but because I don't carry a Frommer’s guide around with me when I travel, so having the Internet to look up random fun things to do in a new area is important.
When you arrive at a new destination, what’s usually first on your agenda?
Taking a shower. I am six-foot-six and after spending hours on a plane or in a car, I need to rinse myself off immediately. That is followed closely by a meal. I have to eat constantly to keep up with my body’s energy demands—I always crave a good meal to make up for all of the sub-par food I consumed in the airport or on the plane.
What motivates you to keep swimming?
I am motivated by self-improvement. The great thing about swimming is that when you improve, it’s largely because of the things you did to make yourself better. The same goes for when you do not improve—that’s because of the things you didn’t do. After being fortunate enough to improve for the last couple of years, I am motivated and hungry for more. Once this urge has been satiated, I’ll be able to move on to other aspects of my life beyond swimming.
As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
I live my dream job. I get to actually say I am a professional athlete. It’s not necessarily the incredibly glamorous life people think of when they hear those words, but I do get to say that I swim for a living. When it comes to regrets, I really don't have any. If I could go back, maybe I would be a little more patient as a teenager, but I am extremely proud of where I am today. I had to make many sacrifices to get here.
When and how did you get into swimming?
I was five years old when I started swimming competitively. However, I have been in and around the water since I was about two years old. I was never very serious about swimming when I was that young. I really just did it for recreation and to keep myself out of trouble. As the years went on, I became more engaged and started to take more ownership over my progress. That’s when the real improvements came.
What advice you would give to a young athlete?
You really just need to do your best to actually enjoy the sport you are engaged in. Younger athletes don’t need to put all this pressure on themselves to be some superhuman. As long as they enjoy what they do, they’ll improve because they want to be doing it.
Who has been your most influential role model? What did he or she teach you?
My parents and my coaches have all been extremely important in instilling the value of hard work in me from a young age. You hear people say, "You can do anything you set your mind to" time and time again, but that saying only made sense to me because I was surrounded by people who worked extremely hard to get where they were in life.
Do you have a life philosophy?
If you ask me the same question tomorrow morning before I have my coffee, you might get a different answer but today I’ll say this: I really try to do my best to live my life with no regrets. Whether this is a gift or a curse, I am constantly thinking of how my actions in the present will affect my life in the future. I use this to make sure that I live a life which I can be proud of.
Have you ever experienced a near accident during your travels that made you think twice about going out again?
I have been lucky to not have experienced any accidents or near accidents during any of my travels. I always take calculated risks and fortunately, the odds have always been in my favor.
If you had to choose a different career, what would it be?
I would love to be a race car driver. I don’t know much about the sport but it would definitely be fun!
Name three things you still want to cross off your bucket list.
Going to space with my medal—maybe I could chat with Richard Branson about that one.
Go bungee jumping.
Go canyoneering in a foreign country.