IT'S ALL ABOUT TECHNIQUE
The two-time Olympic gold medal freestyler trains just as hard in three-star kitchens as in the Longhorns' pool
Swim practice is over this Saturday morning in Austin, and Garrett Weber-Gale has perhaps an hour to hunt down fresh calories before his body stages an insurrection. But he's doing something else—moving to an adjacent pool for more work—and there's a story behind that choice.
Ever since he relocated from Wisconsin to Texas in 2003 to further a career marked so far by two Olympic gold medals, Weber-Gale has made a habit of sponging up the knowledge of others. Today's extra-credit task is to improve his entrance, and Weber-Gale has jawboned Longhorns diving coach Matt Scoggin into sharing some Jedi wisdom. Throw a broomstick in the water, Scoggin says, and it picks up speed after breaking the surface. Why? Because of its rigidity. Keep your core, obliques and glutes as taut as possible—go all broomstick before you hit the water—and you'll get the same acceleration.
When he finally leaves the pool deck to eat his postworkout blend of oatmeal, cream of wheat, pineapple, banana, flax seed and protein powder, Weber-Gale is aglow with this newfound information. His life is a fastidious hunt for refinement, whether in the pool or in the kitchen. After working stages, or apprenticeships, at some of the top restaurants in the world—including Daniel in New York City; Maison Troisgros in Roanne, France; and Noma in Copenhagen—he's arranging for another, at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain. When swimming permits, he promotes healthy gourmet eating with cooking demonstrations and videos. And he's ramping up his fledgling business, Athletic Foodie, which includes a line of spices in development and a Web community built around recipes and nutrition tips. Weber-Gale is a self-described "technique freak," whether the medley is a relay or a plate of vegetables.
Six years ago, just after his sophomore year at Texas, Weber-Gale was given a diagnosis of high blood pressure and barred from practice when his readings crept too high. "It freaked me out," he recalls. "In 2004, I'd missed making the Olympic team by one spot, and here I was a year later, wondering if the dream was being taken from me by circumstances beyond my control."
In fact, the most critical factor in hypertension—diet—was well within his control. As it happened, Weber-Gale had just moved out of the dorms and begun to feel his way around a kitchen. His family soon helped by arranging for lessons.
In Beijing three summers ago, swimming second in the men's 4 × 100 freestyle relay, Weber-Gale gave the U.S. a lead that Michael Phelps had ceded in the opening leg. That helped set up anchor Jason Lezak, who famously outtouched Alain Bernard of favored France by .08 of a second in what's widely regarded as the most exciting swim race ever. But in his individual events Weber-Gale couldn't make good on the promise he'd shown at the Olympic trials, where he'd won the 50 and 100 meters. Although his trials time in the 50, a U.S. record, would have earned him a bronze medal in Beijing, he failed to reach the eight-man final. He says, "Beijing was both very exhilarating and very disappointing."
It was, however, the site of a life-changing encounter. As he left the set of the Today show, where he, Phelps, Lezak and Cullen Jones had gone to talk up their relay exploit, Weber-Gale spotted someone outside the green room: Daniel Boulud, the French celebrity chef who had just opened a restaurant in Beijing and was on Today to promote it. Weber-Gale told Boulud about his interest in cooking and asked the chef to pose for a picture. Boulud slipped Weber-Gale a business card, and a few days later Weber-Gale swung by Maison Boulud for a meal. "I've had experiences in the culinary world that others would never get," says Weber-Gale, who was soon invited to stage for three days at Boulud's New York City flagship restaurant. "A lot of doors open because of my swimming. You tell people you're really passionate about learning, and they're willing to teach you."
During his five-week stage at Troisgros, the cooks took Weber-Gale to the markets in the morning and expected him to perform like any apprentice during the mealtime rush, only to chase him from the kitchen each afternoon so he could unhunch his 6'2" frame in a pool a short bike ride away. As he was schooled in the proper technique for making sabayon—"Hold the whisk like a pencil and make figure eights, using your wrist, not your arm," he says—the voice could have been that of Scoggin or any other of Weber-Gale's poolside earworms.