- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Three years ago, swimmer Nathan Adrian redshirted a season at Cal in hopes of earning a ticket to the Beijing Olympics. It paid off. He did indeed make it to China, where nearly every day at the Water Cube he witnessed, as he described it, "history in the making."
Adrian competed in the 400-meter freestyle relay, a race that earned Michael Phelps one of his two most dramatic gold medals of the 2008 Summer Games. That was the final in which Jason Lezak swam an astonishing anchor leg to best what had seemed an insurmountable lead by the French team.
Adrian, then just 19, swam in the 400 relay preliminary heats for the United States, so he also took home a gold medal. The Olympic experience allowed him to both compete in and observe the sport at its highest level.
Now a senior for the No. 1-ranked Bears, he'd love to finish his collegiate career by helping Cal earn its first NCAA men's team championship in swimming since 1980. The Bears won the title that year and in 1979.
"It would mean everything to me; it's one of the main reasons I decided to swim collegiately this year," Adrian said. "I saw a lot of potential in our team. It's something I didn't want to miss out on. It's exciting to even think about, so to be honest, I try to put it out of my mind and not get too riled up about it."
One of the things he's learned as a swimmer is how to avoid getting overly wound up. Emotions are integral in competition, but so is wise conservation of that energy.
"It was incredible being a part of it, especially because it was my first real international competition with Team USA," Adrian said of the Beijing Games. "That brought out a new aspect of swimming to me.
"I'd say how I've grown since then is the ability to race. To keep my composure and keep a steady head throughout a long competition."
Adrian, from Bremerton, Wash., followed his older brother, Justin, and sister, Donella, as a Pac-10 swimmer. Justin went to Washington; Donella to Arizona State.
"I fell into it because my brother and sister were swimming all the time, so I ended up spending a lot of time at the pool," Adrian said. "It just ended up being a good extracurricular activity for me."
And, it turned out, he was genetically perfect for swimming: At 6-foot-6, he's a natural sprinter in the water. Adrian has been the NCAA freestyle champion at 100 yards the past two years, and won the 50 free national title as well in 2009.
Last season at the NCAA championships in Columbus, Ohio, Adrian and his Cal teammates also won the 200 free, 400 free and 400 medley relays. Also winning individual NCAA titles for Cal last year were Tom Shields in the 100 butterfly and Damir Dugonjic in the 100 breaststroke.
The Bears finished second in the chase for the 2010 NCAA team title behind Texas. That was the program's best finish since also being runner-up in 1986; three-time Olympian Matt Biondi was on that Cal team.
Shields, now a sophomore, and Dugonjic, a senior, are back along with Adrian. All are gearing up for this year's NCAA meet, which is March 24-26 in Minneapolis.
This past weekend, the Bears improved their dual-meet record to 4-0 with victories over No. 8 USC on Friday and Cal State Bakersfield on Saturday. Shields won three races against the Trojans (200 free, 200 backstroke, 100 butterfly), Adrian two (50 and 100 free), and Dugonjic won the 100 breaststroke.
Between now and the NCAA championships, the Bears have a dual meet with Bay Area rival Stanford on Feb. 19 in Berkeley and the Pac-10 championships March 2-6 in Long Beach, Calif. (The league diving championships are Feb. 24-26 in Federal Way, Wash.)
Stanford is ranked No. 2 in the country and has won eight NCAA titles, the most recent in 1998. Auburn and Texas have been the top powers of the past 15 years; the Tigers have eight titles in that span, the Longhorns five.
Cal, Stanford, Auburn, Texas, Florida and Arizona all are expected to be in the mix for the NCAA championship this year.
"Stanford just year in and year out attracts some of the best high school kids," Cal coach David Durden said. "Much like Texas, they're always there. Arizona has some great young guys, and Florida has some phenomenal headliners. And of course, Auburn is always great. So it's going to be fun, and we really look forward to that challenge."
Durden is a native of Texas who swam for UC Irvine and got a degree in electrical engineering. He was working in that field when he got into coaching part-time. He decided to put out some feelers to the top swimming programs in the country because he wanted to advance as a coach. He ended up at one of the very best, Auburn, and then went to Maryland as a head coach.
Durden took over at Cal in August 2007, the same time Adrian arrived on campus as a freshman. Cal also has a very successful women's swimming program -- the Bears are No. 4 in the country and won the 2009 NCAA title -- with longtime coach Teri McKeever recently being named the 2012 Olympic coach for the U.S. women.
"This is one of those jobs that don't come open very often," Durden said of being at Cal. "It's just been a really good fit for me and my family. And it extends even beyond the swimming programs and to the aquatic community as a whole here."
Kirk Everist's men's program and Richard Corso's women's program are both very competitive nationally in water polo, and both men also have a breadth of Olympic experience.
"So you have just this wealth of high-level, world-class knowledge around you in aquatic sports," Durden said. "And certainly Teri and what she has built with her program is an inspiration. You can't help but learn from that being on the pool deck with her every day."
Around the nation
• More splash: Speaking of women's swimming, the Stanford-Cal meet is Feb. 12 at Berkeley. The Cardinal are ranked No. 1 nationally, the Bears No. 4.
Stanford is also top-ranked in women's water polo. The Cardinal clinched the Stanford Invitational title this weekend with a 10-9 victory in three overtimes against No. 2 USC.
• Sooners keep winning: Megan Ferguson had a season-high score of 9.9 on the balance beam Sunday as No. 5 Oklahoma beat No. 10 Nebraska 196.300-195.800, extending the Sooners women's gymnastics team's regular-season winning streak to 22.
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.