Ron C. Judd / Times staff columnist
U.S. swimming's sprint king takes lane less traveled
BERKELEY, Calif. — When Gary Hall Jr. starts boxing, you really want to clear the area.
Normally, the Heavyweight Champion of the Pool isn't out to hit anybody. Standing on the deck at Cal Berkeley's Spieker Aquatics Complex, he's just going through his daily motions, hips rocking gently as his arms mimic a boxer's rhythmic swings at an imaginary punching bag.
"I'll show you," Hall, 29, the fastest man across a 50-meter pool of water, had said seconds before, when asked what in the world boxing, his inner sport, has to do with sprint swimming, his outward profession.
He halts the windmill and faces straight ahead.
"If I'm swimming like this, with my shoulders square to the pool, this is as far as I can reach," he says, pushing his arm straight forward in a faux stroke.
"But if I get rotation," he adds, swinging his hips and torso into the next stroke, "I'm getting like, three inches more reach."
He does this several more times to emphasize the point, alternating between boxing swings and swimming strokes, his upper body twisting, in Gumby fashion, perpendicular to his legs — into a configuration that most normal, Cheetos-eating people's bodies would never achieve.
Watching him for a few seconds brings about a "Karate Kid" revelation: It's the same movement, the haymaker swing taken standing up, the long sprint stroke made floating face down.
Wax on, wax off.
"I take 33 strokes per 50 meters," Hall says, pumping his long arms. "If I'm getting an extra three inches times 33 strokes, that's 99 inches. That's HUGE in an event that's measured out to a hundredth of a second."
It is the same thing that enables Tiger Woods to send a golf ball into orbit, he says.
"All your power is in your trunk."
America's greatest sprint swimmer, who takes the blocks once more at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials tonight in Long Beach, Calif., began incorporating boxing into his regular workouts seven years ago. Today, he is sponsored by Everlast, and his workout rooms in Berkeley and in the Florida Keys are outfitted with workout bags and gloves.
It's not stuff you'll see in the gear bags of many other swimmers. But it works. Repeatedly. All the way to Olympic medal stands in Atlanta, Sydney, and now perhaps Athens.
And this is exactly the point: Hall, U.S. swimming's habitual contrarian, is both loved and hated by others in his sport because he essentially makes it up as he goes along — and gets away with it, time after time.
A rare showman in a sport chock full of people with all the personality of a swim cap, the outspoken Hall takes center stage every fourth summer at the Olympics, then disappears back into his own world of surfboards, boxing gloves and spearfishing.
For that very reason, he might be the most accomplished athlete in recent history — in any sport — who has managed to avoid becoming a household name.
This week, the sprint king begins his quest to become the most medaled Olympian in U.S. history. Much has been made of Baltimore teen phenom Michael Phelps' quest to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in Athens next month. But Hall already owns eight medals, and if he can repeat his previous two Olympic efforts with four more in Athens, his 12 overall would vault him ahead of all-time Games luminaries such as Carl Lewis and Matt Biondi.
A huge potential honor, he says. But really only important as a springboard to complete his new mission: turning the sport of swimming completely upside down, no matter who gets soaked in the process.
Swimmers of the world, Unite!
The problem with American swimming, Hall says, is that even the most elite athletes, like himself, find it difficult to make a living at it once they're out of college programs.
"It's remarkable how few options a post-collegiate swimmer has," he says. Some of the world's top athletes wind up in training "purgatory" at local high schools or public pools once their college eligibility dries up and they are politely shown the door at a university pool.
"It's a fiscal problem, not a physical problem," that causes many to retire before their time, he says.
He blames, in part, the sport's Byzantine meet structures — where swimmers compete in a multitude of events spread over seven days — for creating an impenetrable, foggy layer of process that even true swim fans have difficulty seeing through to the stars.
"I will change that," he says without the slightest hint of doubt.
Hall and business partner/agent David Arluck are pitching The Race Club, a professional swimmer's association/trade union/training group that brings some of the world's greatest swimmers together for two purposes: They're already training together, feeding off one another and upping their own performances in the process. And in the future, they plan to control their own destinies and incomes by staging a series of radically reformed swim meets.
The word "meet" is a misnomer for the events planned by The Race Club, a loose-knit affiliation of sprint racers held together by Hall, Arluck, Mike Bottom, Cal swim coach and longtime Hall mentor, and coach/trainer Jon Olsen.
The Race Club's made-for-TV swim-offs would be more tractor pull than Olympic trials, with head-to-head competitions in a round-robin format. Archrival competitors, such as Hall and Gary Popov, longtime Russian Olympic nemesis, would duke it out in a series of match races leading to an ultimate "title match."
A prize purse, naturally, would be offered. And swimmers' won-lost records would be posted, a la boxing, whenever they appear.
"The title swim is going to take 22 seconds," Hall says of his dream 50-meter race. "We could send it out like a video news release to network affiliates. By putting it on the 10 o'clock news, you're bringing the sport to the people rather than trying to bring the people to the sport."
A handful of the world's elite racers already have endorsed the idea, and Hall and Arluck say the first race will be scheduled for sometime this fall, likely in Europe, Australia or Japan, where TV time is more readily available.
The idea is to give swimmers enough public exposure to draw new sponsors into a sport that currently gets steady cash only from swimsuit maker Speedo.
The concept has drawn some interest from media and the swimming establishment, some segments of which clearly have a hard time seeing the message through the messenger. To some people, The Race Club is just the latest sucker punch from the sport's most notorious malcontent.
Why, some of them ask quietly, would a swim legend who endeavors to get swimming on the evening news habitually skip many of the sport's premier events, including a goodly share of its world championships?
Simple, Hall says.
"I see the world rankings, but they don't really mean anything."
Few of the "world championships" actually attract all the world's best swimmers, because the really good ones are off trying to make a living in years between Olympics, he says.
Race Club training guru Olsen explains Hall's reluctance to swim many of the major meets in more direct terms:
"When you've been at the level Gary's at and done the things he's done, there's really only one swim meet every four years that counts, and that's the Olympic Games," he says. "Why would you even begin to focus on anything other than the pinnacle of our sport when you've already been there and done that?
"Gary's much more than a swimmer. He's a husband and a family man and businessman and many other things."
Dealing with diabetes
One of those other things was thrust on Hall unexpectedly, in 1999, and changed his life forever. Two and a half years after the Atlanta Games, in which Hall won four medals, he was diagnosed with diabetes.
Doctors offered a frank assessment: Forget about swimming. You're done. But Hall persevered, slowly easing back into training, and eventually found that he could continue to swim at an elite level.
It's a delicate balance. He needs ample carbohydrates in his system to fuel a swimmer's long, strenuous workouts. But too much of it will throw his blood sugar out of whack.
He tests his blood-sugar level six times a day, and keeps it in check with five daily insulin injections.
"Insulin is my life support, literally," he says.
Occasional blood-sugar spikes interrupt his training routine, but not to the degree he or his doctors feared.
"It's not without episode," he says. "But I have a better understanding now of how to treat the episodes. So much of it is self-management. That goes for anyone with diabetes."
He has become an active speaker for the American Diabetes Association, reminding audiences that the disease kills more people every year than AIDS and breast cancer combined. He is an outspoken advocate of stem-cell research, and has criticized the Bush administration's stance on the matter. He has unwittingly become one of the most prominent public American faces of diabetes.
But he flatly rejects the notion that anything he does, as a diabetic and a swimmer, belongs in the realm of gallant or heroic.
He likely has inspired millions with the disease, but says he gets more than he gives.
"In the diabetes community, I'm constantly meeting people that are doing stuff nobody else does," he says. "For me, it's just swimming at the Olympics.
"I get a lot of inspiration from other people ... maybe just someone who has lived with diabetes for years without any complications. For me, that's so motivating. It really shakes me up, because my response when I was first diagnosed was, 'OK, this is a matter of time. I better get it in now, because I don't have anymore time. This is basically killing me slowly.'
"So I get choked up when I see someone who has dealt with this successfully. There's so many stories about kids who weren't afraid to go and try out for like, T-ball. You hear them from mothers with tears in their eyes, and it's just ... impossible not to be moved by that."
His voice trails off.
"It inspires me, straight up to the races at the Olympic Games."
The Brick Kick
Some longtime Hall watchers say that dose of diabetes reality has changed the man who was introduced to the world at the 1996 Atlanta Games as a Deadhead punk who answered to no one. His life was further anchored by his 2001 marriage to his wife, Elizabeth. They live in Miami when Hall is not training at Islamorada in the Florida Keys, or Berkeley, where Hall travels to train with Bottom, his coach since 1995.
"He's the greatest sprint coach in the world," Hall says on a sunny day in Berkeley, before one of his final workouts before the Olympic trials. "Look at his results, and nobody can argue with that. But you'll never meet another coach who would admit it, openly."
Race Club swimmers get downright inventive during workout sessions. At a recent session in Islamorada, Hall and some training partners noticed a stack of large cinder bricks on the pool deck, anchoring a flimsy canopy.
A contest was hastily organized: Who can hold the most bricks without sinking to the bottom of the pool?
"That quickly turned into, 'OK, let's try to kick with the bricks across the diving well,' " Hall says. "Then it was, 'OK, you've got to hold the block and see how far you can go in 50 meters before you have to come up for air.' "
Voila: The Brick Kick, now a part of The Race Club sprint-swim workout plan. It is not without its flaws.
"It's very euphoric," Hall says of the lung-busting activity. "It's like a near-death experience. Fortunately, we haven't had any drownings or other tragedies yet."
Racing for gold
The key to Gary Hall Jr., it is clear, is keeping that childlike, my-bike-is-faster-than-yours, competitive spirit alive. Beat him across the pool. He dares you.
Some of it is in his blood. Hall's father, a swim teammate of Spitz, was a three-time Olympian and the U.S. flag bearer at the 1976 Montreal Games. His uncle, Charles Keating III, was a breaststroker on the '76 U.S. squad. If and when Hall Jr. qualifies for Athens, he and Hall Sr. will become the first father-son duo to compete in three Games each.
It will be nice, he says, if he's lucky enough to get to Athens and claim four more medals, putting his name atop the all-time American hardware list. But it's the racing for gold, not the medal itself, that stirs his juices.
They are flowing once more in Long Beach, coming out of that four-year hibernation and strutting across the stage at the Olympic trials, where Hall emerged for yesterday's 100-meter prelims sporting a new, flowing, black Everlast warmup robe and his characteristic grin.
It was the official unveiling of this year's Hall persona — but not his first mark on these trials. As Wednesday's opening session got under way, 7,000 spectators looked up to see a tiny white airplane buzzing around the stadium, towing a banner with a message to all swimkind: "Swim Fast, Have Fun: TheRaceClub.net."
Just a little seat-of-the-pants promotion for what Hall intends to be swimming's new world order. It might take off; it might not.
Either way, for Gary Hall Jr., it's a four-word theme for a life well lived.
Ron C. Judd: 206-464-8280 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company