LONDON -- Nathan Adrian didn't want to be that guy. Not the guy who lost, mind you, but the guy who thought he had won, started to celebrate and then realized ...
Oops! That's actually a "2" next to my name on the scoreboard, not a "1." I'm an idiot.
So before he slapped his hands in the water, unleashed that Abercrombie smile or allowed a few tears to fall, he had to be absolutely certain he was in fact the winner of the marquee swimming event of the Olympic Games, the men's 100-meter freestyle.
"At first I looked up and thought I saw a '1,'" he said. "Then it was like, 'Wait a minute. Did I really?'"
He did, by the narrowest of margins. One one-hundredth of a second. A follow-up look at the scoreboard confirmed the dream was actually reality. Somehow, someway, Adrian had propelled his body to the other end of the Aquatics Centre pool and back in 47.52 seconds, only the second time in his life he had swum a 100 in less than 48. The first came in the opening leg of the 4x100-meter relay Sunday night.
Australia's James Magnussen, who had destroyed Adrian and everyone else at last summer's world championships, finished in 47.53.
"And that's when it hit me like a ton of bricks," Adrian said. "So many emotions. It was incredible."
The win was the first for the United States in the event since Matt Biondi in 1988, and it couldn't have been any more exciting. At the 50-meter turn, Adrian sat in third place, .04 seconds behind defending Olympic champion Cesar Cielo of Brazil. But then he came charging, putting himself into position to make his move. And with 15 meters left, Adrian did just that.
Touching the wall first in swimming isn't necessarily just luck. Swimmers are taught to line up their finishes from 15 to 20 yards out, and time each stroke, kick and movement in order to propel their bodies through the water as quickly and efficiently as possible. On the last stroke, they turn slightly on their side and stretch their right arm as far as they can directly toward the touch pad. It's a move Adrian has practiced over and over in his career. On Wednesday night, he seemed to execute it just right.
In doing so, Adrian energized the American swimmers who were watching in the stands and ready room.
"We went nuts," U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte said. "We were screaming and just went nuts. That was one of the greatest finishes."
For Magnussen, the loss was yet another disappointment in an Olympic Games he admitted he would rather forget. On Sunday, he was the leadoff leg for the 4x100 freestyle relay team that called itself the "Weapons of Mass Destruction," yet managed only a fourth-place finish. Magnussen said it took him more than 24 hours to get over that defeat and that it made him want to just "go away." Now he has Wednesday's disappointment on top of it.
Magnussen said his hometown of Port Macquarie had planned to gather in front of a giant screen at 5 a.m. to watch its hero race. One can only imagine the frustration when he came up .01 seconds short.
"To get knocked down again is tough," Magnussen said. "It's going to be a tough couple of days."
But for those in and around USA Swimming, they couldn't have been happier for Adrian, not only because it was another gold for an American team that had eight by evening's end, but also for who won it. For those who have long believed that nice guys always finish last, Adrian ruins the party.
The 6-foot-6, 220-pound teddy bear has long been one of the good guys within USA Swimming, the type of person who is seemingly always smiling, always happy, always eager to make a new friend. When one USA Swimming official was asked Wednesday night whether Adrian was one of the nicest guys on the team, he interrupted the question and said, "Forget the team. In the world."
After Adrian received his gold medal, Kathleen Hersey, who earlier in the night had finished 0.3 seconds off the medal stand in the 200 butterfly, sneaked her way into the interview area and wrapped her arms around Adrian to wish him congratulations.
One would have thought she might have been down on this night considering she entered the 200 fly final with the top time in prelims and semis, and will head home without a medal. But Hersey was beaming.
"You did so great," she said as she hugged Adrian. "I'm so proud of you."
So what is it about Adrian that everyone seems to love? He's a man without ego. He's intelligent. Friendly. Affable. When USA Swimming made its "Call Me Maybe" video, his teammates asked Adrian to write the words "Call Me" on one hand and "Maybe" on the other. It was goofy, ridiculous. But he went right along with it.
"He said he felt like he was being bribed by his sisters," Hersey said. "But he did it. He's just a great guy. Really, he's quite the catch."
But now the catch's life is about to change. There surely will be marketing opportunities for someone with Adrian's easy-on-the-eyes appearance and endearing personality, not to mention the pressure of living up to skyrocketing expectations as one of the world's fastest men in the water. Adrian said Wednesday that he's always preferred doing the chasing to being the one who is chased. But those days are over; for the next four years, a giant target will be smack on the Olympic champion's back.
Is he ready for everything that comes with that?
"No," Adrian said with a smile. "I'm not nearly ready."