Work in Sports
All about recovery
While Gary Hall, Jr., stayed in the Olympic Village preparing for the 100-meter and 50-meter freestyle races, he spoke to his fiancée, gallery owner Elizabeth Peterson, about his feelings. Here is her report on what these Olympics mean to Gary.
Gary called me late the night of Sept. 16, not long after the U.S. 4 x 100 relay team had lost to the Australians.
Sure, it was a tough race to lose, and the Australian swimmers were playing air guitar, teasing Gary for comments he made in his diary on CNNSI.com that the U.S. would "smash the Australians like guitars."
But the U.S. team broke a world record in finishing second, and after the race, Gary was calm. He was at peace.
Let me tell you a little bit about what Gary's life has been like the past few years -- and I think you will understand why. It's been a constant roller coaster of loss and recovery. The fact that he is competing in the Olympics is a victory in and of itself. He is swimming in the 100-meter freestyle and has a shot at gold in the race he most wants to win, the 50-meter freestyle.
A year-and-a-half ago, around Easter, Gary and I took a trip down to Costa Rica. Gary had tested positive for marijuana use and had been diagnosed with diabetes. It seemed that his swimming career was flat out over. He was terribly depressed. When we arrived in Costa Rica, he told me that he didn't plan to return, that he was going make this a beautiful two month trip, a goodbye trip, that he planned to take his life.
Gary is like a lot of performers. He can wear leather pants and flex and stand up and show confidence and bravado in public. Still, he is so sensitive. Little words can shatter him. I'd never seen anyone so sensitive until I met him. In private, he is incredibly delicate and fragile. When we were in Costa Rica, I was so scared. For the first three weeks, we went to the beach each day and he would go out to swim and would swim and swim and swim out so far that I would lose sight of him. I curled with our little dog, Tiki, on the beach and cried. I didn't know if Gary was going to swim back.
In his diary on CNNSI.com, he would later write: "I often times felt destructive. When these feelings came about I would calm myself by swimming in shark-infested waters, hoping for the worst."
Eventually, he swam back to the beach. And I did not show how scared I was for him, for us.
Later on the trip, we drove up into the hills. I have an uncle and an aunt who live there. They are in their 70s and live the neatest life on a plot of land that is truly paradise. We all went down to a lake and Gary and I sat on a bench while they stripped to their underwear and jumped in, laughing and splashing. We giggled and looked at each other on the bank.
"Who are the old people, here?" we said.
Spending that time with my uncle and aunt changed Gary. He lit up around them. He saw a life and a future and when we returned to the U.S. he found a doctor for the diabetes and had a new vision. He decided to get back in the pool, to swim in the Olympics.
This was not an easy time for us for other reasons. We were low on money, because Gary lost his sponsor, Speedo, after the drug test controversy. He also lost his favorite aunt, who died suddenly, and when we bought a 1970 Nova, the radiator blew up in Gary's face, scalding him with coolant. I had to go find him in the emergency room.
That is the kind of up-and-down time it has been. All about recovery and trying to focus and refocus.
For Gary, focusing is the key to swimming success. So much of it, especially in the sprints, is about visualization and a sort of magical spiritualism that allows a swimmer to reach his peak level of performance.
When he arrived in Sydney for the Olympics, Gary was already tired. A lot of the U.S. team is mentally and physically tired.
The trials were just last month, and many of the swimmers feel that the trials were held too close to the Olympics. The physical and mental preparation it takes to peak at the trials is huge. They have not had a chance to recover from that, and are now competing here. Don't be surprised if some of the U.S. swimmers tighten up, thrash and fade toward the end of their races.
Even the ritual of body shaving that swimmers do has happened too quickly. Usually, this is a very personal process of regeneration that swimmers do once a year. Now, they've had to do it twice in little more than a month. That's too soon. Way too soon.
So, when he arrived in Sydney, Gary was not prepared for the onslaught of tabloid media coverage surrounding his guitar comments in the diary. The comments were taken out of context and Aussie swimmer Kieran Perkins responded by calling Gary a "drug cheat."
That really got to him. He called when he got here, and I asked how he was doing.
"Not so good," he said and explained why. "I am sick. Sick."
He was sad, because he didn't know if he'd ever get over that marijuana thing from 1998. He was suspended from swimming for three months. He thought that was over. But now, here he was, back in the Olympics, clean, with no plans to ever smoke pot again, committed to retaining control of his own life ... and it's all over the Aussie papers.
He didn't know what to do. Part of Gary wanted to stand up, call a press conference, take the World Wrestling Federation approach and let them have it. Another part of him wanted to act like a gentleman.
When I told him that the press in the U.S. was reporting the story with more perspective than the Australian papers -- they ran all of the comments in his diary, not just the one "smash-them-like-guitars" sentence out of context -- he was so happy. He decided to take the high road in his response.
I still think about those long swims in Costa Rica, when I feared that he would never come back. He's come a long way from wanting to end his life, from the drug controversy and the early shock of the illness. He has the diabetes under control and pharmaceutical companies that are bidding for him to become a spokesman.
Oh, and sometime after the Olympics, we are planning to get married, probably in Europe.
So, when I talked to him on the phone after the relay, I understood why he was at peace -- and how, at 26 years old, he still has so far in life to go.
-- Elizabeth Peterson