Hardy's return brings new outlook

The racing block Jessica Hardy just finished couldn't have been much harder. She swam the last night of world championships in Shanghai on July 31 and the first morning of nationals at Stanford University on Aug. 2, with just 24 hours and the Pacific Ocean in between.

It's an odyssey Hardy might not want to repeat, but she came out of the back-to-back meets with a world title in the 50-meter breaststroke and a national championship in the 100 of the same discipline. Besides, the last thing Hardy will complain about is too much racing.

"I can't tell you how much more I appreciate it now," she said last week. "Before, I would accomplish something that was beyond my expectations, and I'd immediately be looking forward. Now, it sounds corny to say, I appreciate the moment."

Hardy, 24, was referring to the events that will forever divide her career into before and after. In late July 2008, after qualifying in four events for the Beijing Olympics, Hardy learned she had tested positive for clenbuterol, a stimulant with anabolic-like effects that is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency code.

The swimmer immediately suspected a tainted nutritional supplement. Two separate arbitration panels, citing laboratory analysis of the product, agreed and her suspension was reduced from the mandatory two years to one. But the cost was still high. Hardy lost her chance to compete in the Olympics, her day job as an athlete and, for a while, her emotional health.

Even after Hardy began racing again -- setting two world records in the 50 and 100 breaststroke in her first meet back in 2009 -- obstacles loomed in her lane. It was only this past April that the International Olympic Committee ruled she would be exempt from a new doping-related rule that would have kept her from competing in the next Games. After three years of uncertainty, Hardy can finally focus on qualifying for the 2012 Olympic team next June in Omaha.

"I'm really proud of the fact that she's rebounded as well as she has; I'm amazed at her strength," said Hardy's mother, Denise Robinson. But, Robinson added, "In my opinion, it's not over, it's not going to be complete, until she gets through the Olympic trials."

Being Jessica Hardy for the past few seasons has been a bit like being a powerboat with a cinderblock hanging off the bow. She managed to go fast at times despite the drag. But the weight is off now and her natural state of being perennially upbeat has been restored. As time goes on, Hardy is intent on putting accomplishment in the forefront and making her suspension recede lower in her life story, paragraph by paragraph.

"I don't really have an answer for how I got through it mentally," she said. "I'm really grateful that I did get through it, that's the best way I can put it."

Three years ago this month, Hardy expected to be on the blocks in Beijing. Instead, she was on the other side of the world, on a hastily arranged trip to Aruba with her family, staying as far away as she could from the ubiquitous television coverage of the Olympics.

Hardy made one exception: She watched her longtime boyfriend, Dominik Meichtry of Switzerland, race in the finals of the 200 freestyle, where he finished sixth.

Going to the Olympics together had been a shared vision for the pair, who began dating in 2005 when they were both attending the University of California-Berkeley. At 18, she was already a world-record holder and triple world silver medalist. They've been together ever since and currently train under the same coach, Dave Salo, at the Trojan Swim Club based at the University of Southern California.

"We talked a lot about it," said Meichtry, 26. "How many couples could say they did that? It was a kind of fantasy, and when we both qualified, it was so satisfying to know it was going to happen and nothing was standing in our way."

That dream began to disintegrate when the phone rang in the Palo Alto hotel room Hardy was sharing with her friend and rival, Rebecca Soni, during a pre-Olympic team camp. Hardy was napping. Soni gave her the message: She had to go to the team manager's office immediately. Told she had tested positive at the Olympic trials, "I began crying and didn't stop for about three weeks," Hardy said.

Then, as now, Hardy said she would never knowingly take a prohibited substance. She had done her own research on the supplements she was taking (a point that would later become important in her case) before signing an endorsement contract with the company. But with less than three weeks left before the start of the Olympics, when it became apparent she would not be able to assemble evidence and arguments in time, she withdrew herself from the team.

Meichtry, already in Asia, was understandably torn. The two had an emotional conversation over Skype.

"She said, 'You've been training for this just as hard as I have,'" he said. "She told me to swim for myself and try to be selfish. Hearing that from Jess, and hearing that she meant it, it was really mature. It was phenomenal."

Those initial weeks were difficult. The next few months were worse. As Hardy waited for her case to be heard, she felt isolated from her friends and unmoored not knowing when she might be able to compete again.

"It tore me to pieces to see how hard it was for her to motivate herself to do anything," said Robinson, a licensed social worker who does therapy in private practice. "She was grieving. Being a swimmer was and is her identity."

The normally ebullient, outgoing Hardy struggled to keep her chin above water psychologically and said she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. But her inner drive helped her fight her way back to equilibrium. She took college classes, crashed in her old bedroom in Long Beach at her mother and stepfather's house and trained two or three times a week.

"One day would be great, the next day would be horrible," Hardy said. "Absolutely any little stress could trigger me off into depression or negativity or freaking out. It also made me a furious, reckless trainer in the pool. I would just go and go and go and go and my coach would have to tell me to slow down."

Salo, who said he never doubted Hardy was telling him the truth about why she tested positive, said he has rarely seen anyone so resolute. He worked with her to find the right training regimen while she was still in legal limbo. "She's one of the strongest individuals I've ever coached, pound for pound," he said.

Meichtry was still in school, and the two saw each other about once a month, trying to steer their conversations away from the sport that had brought them together. They went to Disneyland, they toured Alcatraz; he brought her to Switzerland for Christmas. When dark moods pulled her away from him, he gently yanked back. "Let me support you," he told her.

"She lost some of that bubbliness. She wasn't as open, she was scared of what people around her thought," he said. "But she realized quickly, as I knew she would, that swimming was still fun for her."

The case grinded on. Hardy did not dispute the test findings, but instead set about to try to prove she had inadvertently taken a tainted supplement. She presented tangible evidence: Tests on the same lot of supplements she had been using, performed by two separate laboratories. (The supplement manufacturer, AdvoCare, was not a party to the arbitration but did its own testing and contended there was no contamination. The company's lawsuit against Hardy is still pending.)

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency quizzed witnesses closely on whether the amount of clenbuterol found in the supplement could have accounted for the level found in Hardy's sample; testimony by two independent experts led the panel to conclude that the product could have been unevenly contaminated. The arbitrators also considered Hardy's methodical queries to the supplement company in judging the degree of her negligence. In May 2009, the panel ruled Hardy had met her burden of proof and limited her suspension to one year. The Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld that opinion a year later.

When Hardy first stepped on a pool deck to race again in August 2009 at the U.S. Open in Federal Way, Wash., she was conscious of being under the microscope, but said she put more pressure on herself than anyone else could have.

"I knew what I was capable of at the Olympics and I never got to do that," she said. "All I could think about leading into my first competition was how well I wanted myself to do. I didn't really have time to think of how other people were reacting to me.

"I walked in holding my head down, kind of prepared for the worst, and all I got were hugs and 'Welcome backs.' But I was really nervous because of the expectations I had of myself, and wouldn't have been surprised if I had just completely self-destructed. But I was able to use it to my advantage, I guess. It's one of those things where you explode in a bad way or you explode in a good way."

Hardy broke the long course 50-meter breaststroke world record not once but twice -- once in that race (29.95) and again (29.80) on the way to another world record in the 100 (1:04.45). Like the rest of the field, she was wearing the non-textile suits that have since been prohibited from competition. Those records still stand.

Since then, Hardy has continued to be among the top breaststroke specialists in the world, but Soni (who did not compete at the recent nationals) has eclipsed her in the 100, and the 50 is not an Olympic event. Salo, who coaches both of them, said in June that Hardy is still improving in her freestyle events and suggested she could excel even in the 200.

"She's very competitive, and she's done a really nice job this year not getting too frustrated when she's not No. 1 in the breaststroke," he said.

This August promises to be blissfully drama-free for Hardy -- a time to look forward to the Olympics that will be instead of looking back at the one that wasn't. She hasn't had her sit-down to discuss next season with Salo yet, but there's no mystery about her goal. At next year's Olympic trials, Hardy expects to compete in the 50 and 100 freestyle, the 100 breaststroke and make herself a candidate for relays.

"I don't mind talking about everything I've been through, but as each meet comes and goes, it gets more exciting to talk about my swimming," Hardy said this week. "I'd like to make my mark in the pool."

She was a little tired, having been awakened at 6 a.m. by a knock at the door from a drug tester. Hardy said she never flinches at resubmitting to the same process that gave her so much grief. She has sworn off all supplements (advice she occasionally reinforces on her chatty Twitter feed) eschews junk food and eats a vigilant diet of chicken, fish, vegetables and fruit.

Hardy may not be quite the same person she was in 2008 when swimming and life stretched ahead with limitless promise, but with characteristic sunniness, she actually hopes to be better.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.