Hall won't rule out Beijing in 2008

Updated: August 26, 2004, 2:17 PM ET
By Steve Woodward | Special to ESPN.com

ATHENS, Greece -- He has battled diabetes every day of his life since 1999, but wouldn't it be cool to be Gary Hall Jr.?

He says what he thinks and thinks what he says. And what he says makes sense.

Gary Hall Jr.
Getty ImagesGary Hall Jr. usually attracts attention with his wardrobe.
His dad competed as a swimmer in three Olympic Games and, now, so has the son.

Gary Jr. moved to Miami Beach so he could do part of his swimming in the ocean in addition to a pool.

He met his wife in a bar.

He wears a stars-and-stripes boxer's trunks and robe onto the pool deck at the Olympics, where competitors are supposed to be mega-focused, cotton-mouthed and gasping for air because of the pressure. What's he doing? Clasping his hands above his head like Oscar de la Hoya.

Gary Hall Jr. fell short of winning the 50-meter freestyle when it was right there for him at age 21 in an Olympic Games on home turf, Atlanta 1996. Does he take his silver medal and two relay golds and disappear? Heck, no. He comes back four years later, in the birthplace of swimming fanaticism, Australia, and wins the 50 at age 25.

Then, despite owning eight Olympic medals, he has the aficionados in swimming rolling their eyes by sticking around until 2004, and what does he do? He arrives in the birthplace of the modern Olympic Games and, at age 29, living with a severe daily regimen of diabetes treatments, and wins the second 50-meter free gold of his career on a balmy Friday night against a field of young studs poised to annihilate him.

"It took everything I had," Hall said. "It's the fastest field in history; this is the memory of a lifetime."

Despite all of his quirks, which he flaunts, despite rebellious inclinations he can't shake in the name of just trying to have fun, and despite a penchant for retro plaids and stripes and eye glasses that might have been worn by a 1960s TV anchorman -- everything designed to disturb the status quo -- Gary Hall Jr. stood on the medals podium, his eyes welling with emotion at the sight of the American flag rising in his honor.

Of course, what we all too often forget in the United States is that a guy like Gary Hall Jr. has a lot more in common with the people who first took on the world to make that flag a symbol of freedom than he does with most of his contemporary, politically correct, fear-gripped fellow citizens back home.

"I love him for this," said Duje Draganja, 21, a Croatian who trains with Hall in south Florida and finished one-hundredth of a second behind him in Friday's 50 final. "He's a guy with an open heart. He's special."

A bunch of guys, not all Olympic caliber, have followed Hall to Florida where he formed The Race Club to take on the establishment and traditional views of his sport's national federation, USA Swimming. He recruited Cal-Berkeley co-head coach Mike Bottom, a revered sprint coach who would have competed for the U.S. in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow had the U.S. government not ordered a boycott, to be the club's sprint guru.

The Race Club is Hall's revolution. He wants to use it as a platform to create new, dramatic swimming events that have more television appeal and to foster a training environment that attracts accomplished and unproven swimmers alike.

Some conspiracy theorists will tell you that Hall rubs so many people within his sport the wrong way that he was deliberately excluded the other night from the men's 4x100 freestyle relay team. The U.S. was dealt a humiliating blow in that event, finishing third.

"I didn't want to come across as bitter," Hall said after winning his 50 free gold. "So I came across as disappointed. But I was bitter. I probably just felt it best not to say anything. I took it very personally. I wanted to be part of the relay team that reclaimed that [1996] gold medal [relinquished to the Aussies in Sydney in 2000]."

Bottom was visibly perplexed by lingering questions about that relay snub in the immediate aftermath of Hall's gold medal moment. It came a day after Hall's old nemesis, world record holder Alexander Popov of Russia, failed to advance out of the preliminaries.

Someone dared ask if Hall was motivated to prevail in the 50 because he was left off the relay lineup.

"Gary swims the way Gary swims," Bottom said, his eye narrowing. "Let the relay go."

Hall later handed Bottom the laurel wreath placed on the head of medal winners. Bottom wore it on his head instead. Someone will protest, no doubt. A coach wearing the sacred wreath? Zeus will exact his revenge for sure.

Later, Hall acknowledged that someone probably already was scheming how to punish him for walking into the deck for Friday's final in the Rocky Balboa outfit rather than the U.S. Olympic Committee-issued team outwear provided by outfitter Adidas.

"I'll probably get into a lot of trouble for not wearing the team uniform," Hall said with a smirk. "But, [the boxing outfit] is my lucky one.

"I think there are still people that doubt me, that think it's hard to take me seriously sometimes. But, consistently, I have gotten results. I believe that hard work can be fun. It's been an important part of the equation for me."

With nine career Olympic medals to his credit, a lifetime battle with diabetes always in his future and a 30th birthday around the corner on Sept. 26, the reasonable conclusion is that Athens is the end of the road for Hall as an Olympian.

So someone asked if we'll see Hall at the 2008 Games in Beijing as a competitor.

Let's put it this way. This was the equivalent of hanging one over the plate for Sammy Sosa, or teeing it high and handing John Daly a non-conforming driver with a 460cc head.

"Yes, why not?" said Hall, jutting forth that earnest lower jaw of his. "They told me I wouldn't be [at the Games] in 1996 because I was too immature. They told me I wouldn't be there in 2000 because I had diabetes. I think this time they said I was too old."

Fact is, Gary Hall is too good to be true on a night like Friday. Who wouldn't want to be able to say that just once in a lifetime?

"Defiance," Hall said. "It's fun."

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