Swimming seems so lovely, what with the sun, the bleached-blond hair, the taut and tanned bodies. The truth, though, is it can be cruel. Year after year, stroke after stroke, the water chews into flesh, eating at shoulder muscles, turning men in their twenties into creaky, worn-out has-beens, left to idly recall the glory days from poolside. Surgeries? Routine. Burnout? Expected.
Friday night, Gary Hall Jr. stepped to the starting block at the Olympic Aquatic Center, ready to stare down all those realities straight through his tinted goggles. He has diabetes. He swims upstream against the people who run his sport. He has won Olympic gold medals before. But it just wasn't likely this time. Not at 29. He seemed, to some, to be part of swimming history.
Yet 21.93 seconds after he leapt from the block, following a frenetic combination of splash and dash, he made history. Hall -- rocked earlier in the week when he wasn't invited to swim on a relay team -- overcame both his disappointment and detachment to win the gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle, the ninth Olympic medal of a career that has spanned three Games. It was a moment filled with ferocity and fire, one that showed why Hall is simply one of the best competitors his sport has ever seen.
"He swims at the right moment," said his coach, Mike Bottom. "Gary's a racer. He'll always do the best when he gets into a race."
In an event so close the winning margin was imperceptible by anything not electronic, Hall beat his training partner, Duje Draganja of Croatia, by one hundredth of a second. Roland Schoeman of South Africa, who also trains with Hall, took the bronze, just .09 of a second behind. Three swimmers, friends, separated by the beat of a hummingbird's wing, embraced afterward.
"How can I describe my brothers?" Draganja said.
The performance elicited two arms extended skyward from Hall immediately after, not to mention tears prior to the medal ceremony. He didn't have that reaction in winning two golds and two silvers in 1996 in Atlanta, nor did he have that reaction after taking two golds, a silver and a bronze in 2000 in Sydney.
"I think, probably, this is the most emotional," Hall said. "I don't know why. I haven't figured that out yet."
What Hall has figured out, after all this time, is a way to endure in, and embrace, independence. He has cast aside the conventional methods of training, and instead holed up in Islamorada, Fla., inviting elite sprinters from around the world to migrate to the Keys. They swim some, spear fish some more, box each other -- whatever comes to mind, as long as it generally steers clear of the drudgery normally associated with the training to be an elite swimmer.
"It's okay to have fun," Hall said. "Hard work can be fun. I think that having fun is an important part of the equation. It certainly has been in my success."
So he occasionally looks at other methods with scorn. Others may loathe him for it. But those who sip the potion become mesmerized. The sense of community, of oneness, was on the podium.
"What can you describe when you put the top sprinters to train in one place," Draganja said, "and everybody's weird?"
That counterculture approach, along with a say-how-you-feel attitude, has led Hall to become something of an outsider in the American swimming community, not to mention in some other corners. His camp has, occasionally, taunted fellow American Jason Lezak, who finished fifth in Friday's 50 final. He has had legendary feuds with Alexander Popov, the 50-meter world record holder from Russia, who did not advance out of the preliminary heats of the event here.
"I don't know, maybe some people hate him," Draganja said. "Maybe Popov doesn't like him. But I love him for this. I love the way he is. He's a guy with an open heart -- and he's special."
Earlier this week, despite the fact that he had placed third in the 100-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic trials, the U.S. men's coach, Eddie Reese, chose to leave Hall off the 4x100 freestyle relay team. Hall, who considers himself among the best relay swimmers the United States has ever had -- and has the evidence to back it up -- privately seethed. Quite publicly, the American team finished a disappointing third, taking bronze when gold was expected.
"I really didn't want to come across as bitter," he said. "I was disappointed with the decision not to be included on the relay. I was bitter, so I felt it would probably be best not to say anything. I took it very personally."
Hall's personality simply overtook the pool by the end of an exhilarating evening. Michael Phelps won his fifth gold medal of the Games in a stirring 100 butterfly. Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry, who already had a silver and a bronze -- her country's only medals -- added gold in the 200 backstroke, beating Russia's Stansilava Komarova and Japan's Reiko Nakamura. The Japanese had more to celebrate when Ai Shibata ended a 20-year American hold on the women's 800 freestyle, edging out Laure Manaudou of France and Diana Munz of the United States.
By the end of the night, though, Hall was the last person to the medal stand, the bleachers emptying out. His hair slicked back, he smiled when the public address announcer boomed, "Olympic champion." The feeling, it turns out, doesn't get old, even if you do.
"They told me it couldn't be done in 1996, because I was too immature," Hall said. "And then they said in 2000 that I had diabetes, and that it couldn't be done. And this time, I think they said I was too old."
They were wrong in 1996. They were wrong in 2000. They were wrong this summer. They could be wrong again, even when Hall is 33, and the 2008 Games roll around.
"Why not?" he said. "Defiance. It's fun."