Commentary

Family, fatherhood guiding Hall in his latest Olympic challenge

Updated: July 4, 2008, 12:12 AM ET
By Meri-Jo Borzilleri | Special to ESPN.com

Gary HallBob Care/Getty ImagesAmerican Gary Hall trains with the swimming club he helped found, The Race Club.
ISLAMORADA, Fla. -- Far from swimming's spotlight on controversial swimsuits, smashed world records and Michael Phelps, Gary Hall Jr. trains quietly in near-anonymity on a small island in the Florida Keys.

Hall is lifting weights at a gym called Froggy's. Other members of the swim club he helped found, The Race Club, are grunting through their workouts. Amid the Lycra-clad lifters wearing skintight, high-tech shirts, Hall is the only one wearing Bermuda shorts and a button-up polo.

As the sport's rare iconoclast, Hall has perfected the art of swimming under the radar. You don't hear much about Hall between Olympic years, save for the oddball news item -- like when he and his sister, Bebe, fought off a shark while spearfishing in 2006.

That's by design. Hall's schedule is carefully calibrated. He surfaces only occasionally for meets, skipping April's short-course world championships and most other competitions deemed important for swimmers readying for the Summer Olympics in August.

He is scheduled to compete in the Olympic trials, which would be just his third meet of the year, in Omaha, Neb.

Hall will swim the 50-meter freestyle, his sport's glamour sprint. Yet, outside the pool, he prefers life in the slow lane. That's the culture of the Keys, where a four-story motel is the island's tallest building, visitors mosey along on bicycles and the local diner's waitress calls even strangers "hon." This spring, the laid-back Hall grew his sideburns into outrageous muttonchops.

When Hall made the 2004 Olympic team, he and his father, Gary Sr., became the first father-son duo to have made three Olympic teams each (Gary Sr. did it in 1968, '72 and '76). This time, another twist -- Hall is one of the few swimmers trying for Olympic gold while raising a family.

Since Athens, Hall has become a father, twice over. His wife, Elizabeth, gave birth to Gigi, now 2, and Charlie, 5 months, since Hall won surprise gold in the 2004 Olympics. He was 29 then, the oldest swimmer in 80 years to win an Olympic title.

Eight years ago, Hall won gold in 2000 despite being discounted following his diagnosis for diabetes the year before. He won again in 2004, when some said he was too old. He's grown up a lot since 1998, when he was suspended for three months after a positive test for marijuana, but he continues to say what he thinks. He famously promised the U.S. team would smash the Aussies like guitars in 2000 (it didn't). Earlier this year, Hall ignited a firestorm in the swim community Down Under when he voiced doping-related suspicion about Australian swimmer Eamon Sullivan's 50-meter world record.

In 2004, Hall was among the first Olympic athletes to say publicly if track star Marion Jones cheated, she should be banned for life. He said he got hate mail and an e-mail calling him racist. Four years later, Jones is in prison for lying to federal investigators about her use of performance-enhancing drugs.

"It really hurt," he said. "So yeah, I do feel a little vindicated that it came out. It certainly won't stop me from speaking out in the future."

The brash swimmer who wore boxing trunks and kissed his biceps before winning Olympic gold is a softie around his kids. This run-up to the Olympics is like no other for Hall.

"Now, it's a completely different story because he's so torn," Elizabeth said. "There's a whole new dynamic to this. He wants his kids present. … It's a whole different ballgame."

Now Hall is 33, four years past too old, and attempting to do what no swimmer has done -- win the 50 in three straight Olympics.

The 50 is swimming's high-wire act, a 21-second sprint to the far wall, leaving no time or room for error. Swimmers literally hold their breath for the outcome -- some take one or even zero breaths during the one-length race. The event fits the performer in Hall.

"I like the 50," he said, sitting in a sandwich shop across the highway from Froggy's. "My primary focus is on the 50. I was thinking initially I'd go for maybe a relay spot in the 100, and I don't think I'm going to."

Hall said he has put behind him the relay controversy of 2004, when U.S. coach Eddie Reese dropped him from the 4x100 relay final team. The U.S. team took bronze in the event it has historically dominated. Hall said Reese, who will lead the U.S. team again in Beijing, is a great coach who made a wrong decision. But there's no question where Hall's attention is directed for 2008.

"What excites me is the possibility of winning the [50-meter] event in three consecutive Olympics. It's never been done before. That's my shot at history. The relay's going to perform well, regardless of whether I'm on it or not."

First, he must make the team. That's no small feat.

Despite his status as the two-time defending Olympic champion and American record-holder (21.76 seconds, set in 2000), Hall is seeded just seventh in the 50 because of the deep Olympic trials field. A crop of 20-something stars, including Matt Grevers and Garrett Weber-Gale, along with veteran Jason Lezak and Hall's 19-year-old teammate Nathan Adrian, have all swum faster than Hall in meets this spring. World champion Ben Wildman-Tobriner and world silver-medalist Cullen Jones are also in the mix. Only the top two from the trials earn berths for Beijing.

As of mid-June, Hall's time of 22.20 seconds was the world's 20th-fastest time in the event, fifth-best in the United States this year. Ask him what time it'll take to earn his fourth trip to the Games, and Hall counts out the clock.

Gary Hall
Mark Wilson/Getty ImagesGary Hall has been an advocate for those living with diabetes, particularly children.

"It's never been about a time," Hall said. "It's going to take first or second place, and that's something that I've always done very well. If the guy in the lane next to me goes 21.7, I'll go 21.6. That's just my outlook. You get your finger on the wall before the guy next to you. It'll definitely be a fast time. It's never easy to make an Olympic team, and it's not getting any easier."

If Hall makes the team, formidable swimmers stand between him and history. In recent months, Australia's Sullivan and France's Alain Bernard each broke Alexander Popov's eight-year-old 50-meter world mark of 21.64. The current mark is Sullivan's 21.28, set in March. Both broke the records wearing Speedo's controversial LZR Racer suit, which Hall also wears.

Having won before at the Olympics helps.

"Experience definitely helped me through the last one [2004]," Hall said, pointing out it hasn't always taken a world record to win gold. "The pressure is so great. It's how well you can deal with that pressure, or how well you can block it out or be oblivious to it depending on your approach, that has enabled me to remain a lot more calm through the last Olympics, and I attribute that to experience."

Family has a lot to do with the balance Hall credits with keeping him on track for another Olympic run. He owns a house in Islamorada that he shares with his parents, Gary Sr. and Mary. The house, naturally, is on the water. The backyard has a beach, and a large powerboat with The Race Club crest is tied to the dock. There's a hot tub and all kinds of water-sport playthings, like paddle boards and smaller craft. Race Club swimmers are frequent visitors.

Bebe helps run the club. His cousin, Christina Boland, is the club's public relations director, and Hall's brothers, Richard and Brian, are working on a documentary about the club this winter.

Hall also owns a home on Miami Beach, where Elizabeth and the children spend most of their time these days.

"My lifeblood comes to me away from the pool," Hall said, "and that's family, and that's diving -- deep-sea diving -- and surfing."

This winter, Hall tried to have it all. He made the 90-minute commute to Miami Beach during training breaks twice a week, putting 20,000 miles on his car in eight months. It got to be too much. Now, he slips back home occasionally on weekends, and Elizabeth also brings the kids down frequently.

As the run-up to the trials intensified, Hall hired a helper for Elizabeth.

"Not a live-in, but enough to help," he said. "And so it alleviates the guilt."

But Hall feels the pull these days, now that he's a dad.

"I love spending time with the family, especially at these early ages. Not seeing them for two weeks, you miss a lot," he said. "The 2-year-old is just starting to do Mommy and Me classes, and stuff like that."

I've learned one thing. Never count Gary Jr. out. No matter what I think, it doesn't matter. It's what's in his head. I wouldn't be shocked at anything.

--Mary Hall on her son's Olympic dream

He and Elizabeth had a deal. If they were going to have kids, he wasn't going to be changing diapers. Then came Gigi. Elizabeth had a Caesarean section.

"He changed Gigi before I did," Elizabeth said.

Diapers, midnight feedings … Hall did it, and liked it.

"It's amazing how quickly a baby can get under your skin and affect you," he said, "and I'm affected."

This winter, he and Gigi danced to the song "Tequila." They had playful arguments over who's Peter Pan. The lean, 6-foot-6 Hall would take Gigi by the ankles and hold her upside down as she giggled. They played games of "gotcha."

"He's a wonderful teacher," Elizabeth said. "He's very patient and he's very playful. He's everything I thought he would be, 10 times better. All this stuff I fell I love with when I met him. He has this calm quality, and also has a lot of energy."

When he doesn't, something's usually seriously wrong. Monitoring his diabetes is tricky, and can have dire consequences for even one mistake, like the time he took a nap instead of testing after spearfishing and nearly landed in the hospital. In May, as preparations for the Olympic trials intensified, Hall was forced to take several days off from training. "He hit the wall," Elizabeth said. "He was exhausted." It has been an unsettling time for Hall's family and coach.

Hall endures an exhaustive, self-conducted regimen of blood testing and insulin shots every day. Before his weightlifting session one evening at Froggy's, Hall tested his blood. Immediately afterward, he tested it again. He does this often 10 to 12 times a day. Hall says he injects himself at least five times a day. His blood-sugar levels can vary with a maddening inconsistency. Stress, adrenaline, endorphins, workout intensity, body temperature -- all figure in.

"It's like trying to keep the temperature in your house [steady] without a thermostat," said Gary Sr.

Pre-race prep is different for Hall than for his fellow competitors. Ten minutes before he raced for gold at the 2000 Olympics, as others competitors listened to music or got mentally prepared, Hall tested his blood sugar. Five minutes after winning, he tested again. Same thing at the 2004 trials, where he brought his diabetes kit right onto the pool deck.

Other elite athletes, like Olympic Nordic skier Kris Freeman and, recently, Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler, have been diagnosed with diabetes. But Hall may be entering uncharted waters, having competed at a high level for nine years with the disease, said coach Mike Bottom. Years of blood-sugar ups and downs can have a debilitating cumulative effect.

"It's taking a toll on his body that no one can understand," Bottom said. "That's why it irritates me that people talk about Gary winning a gold medal. To Gary, it's a gold medal to be at the Olympic trials. To Gary, it's a gold medal to stand in the blocks next to some of the best in the world. To put that kind of measurement on his worth, whether he wins a gold medal or not, that's the wrong measuring stick."

Gary Hall
Al Bello/Getty ImagesGary Hall has won 10 Olympic medals, five of which are gold.

Here's the math: Hall's career best time is 21.76 seconds. Sullivan went 21.28 this year.

"That's half a second," Bottom said. "That's not in the same league. … Yeah, I think it's possible for Gary to win a gold again. Is it probable? No, it's not probable. Can he do it? I believe Gary can do anything."

But will he?

"It's tougher this time," said Bottom, who was recently hired to coach at Michigan, a job he will begin after the Olympics. "The question to ask is: 'Will Gary make the Olympic team?' Take one step at a time."

Bottom frets that Hall has too much on his plate: new kids; family living a long 90 minutes away; running The Race Club, which is expanding internationally; diabetes. Hall is sponsored by Speedo, but he still does speaking engagements to make ends meet.

"He's got so much stress on him," said Bottom.

The diagnosis of Type I diabetes came in 1999, the year before the Sydney Olympics. It stunned Hall and his family. Doctors said he would no longer be able to swim at a top level with the disease. Not long after, Hall grabbed some insulin syringes without a real idea how to use them, threw them in a bag, got Elizabeth and the family dog and packed off to Costa Rica. He told Elizabeth he wanted to end his life.

"He was terrified," Elizabeth said. "I was terrified to see him terrified. I wasn't really afraid of how Gary was going to manage his diabetes. I was more afraid of how he was going to manage the news."

They went to the beach often. Hall took disturbingly long swims straight out into the surf. Once he was gone for hours. A frightened Elizabeth waited on the beach weeping.

"I didn't think he was going to come back," she said.

Hall returned having decided he'd be an example for others. He made good on that pledge. He found a doctor who worked with him to manage the disease and continue high-level swimming. Hall has taken it upon himself to do more than speak publicly about diabetes. He's an unofficial educator.

"It's part of the deal internally I embraced with my own diagnosis, that if I could give back and swim well, it'd be the kind of stuff that I'd do," he said.

Hall gets a steady number of e-mails and phone calls from frightened teenage athletes and parents. Sometimes his phone will ring late at night from halfway around the world.

"I've had conversations at 2 and 3 in the morning," he said.

They've gotten his phone number from Hall's Web site. Hall gets a kick from the reaction when he answers.

"There's usually a long pause," Hall said, grinning. "They're shocked every time. … I say hello, and they're expecting the Gary Hall Jr. hotline or something."

Hall credits handling diabetes with helping him block distractions. At the 2004 Games, when the relay controversy threatened to derail him, Hall was able to redirect his anger to win the 50.

"You realize that life throws [something] at you every once in a while and that's just part of life," he said. "There's as many obstacles as there are people in this world. Because everybody has something that they have to deal with, that wouldn't necessarily choose to deal with. The relay was just one of those things."

It's Tuesday morning, and The Race Club is training at the Jacob Community pool. While Bottom puts other Race Club members through a structured workout, the sets written on a dry-erase board on the pool deck, Hall is on his own program. He doesn't appear to be working much. If he takes strokes at all, they're languid, slow.

He does some hard kick sets timed by Bottom, but no more than a few. This is typical. Hall knows exactly what he's doing -- subscribing to what's known as Bottom's "big cat" theory of training swimmers to go fast.

Big cats (think lions and tigers) spend most of their time looking as if they're not doing much. But when it comes time to hunt, they're perfectly primed for a quick strike -- efficient, brutal, effective.

Hall has 10 Olympic medals, fourth-most in the sport behind Jenny Thompson (12), Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi (11 each). If Hall makes it to Beijing, it'll be his fourth Olympics in a burnout sport.

The sprinter has figured out how to go the distance. Now, it's others who are holding their breath to see if Hall can produce one more sparkling 50.

"I've learned one thing," said his mother, Mary. "Never count Gary Jr. out. No matter what I think, it doesn't matter. It's what's in his head. I wouldn't be shocked at anything."

Meri-Jo Borzilleri, a freelance writer based in Bellingham, Wash., is a contributor to ESPN.com.

Meri-Jo Borzilleri

Contributor, espnW.com
Meri-Jo Borzilleri has been a journalist for more than 20 years, most recently for the Colorado Springs Gazette, where she covered the U.S. Olympic Committee and three Olympics before resigning to freelance in 2007. Her work has appeared in The Seattle Times, USA Today, ESPN.com, nbcolympics.com, universalsports.com and The Associated Press. She works and lives in Bellingham, Washington.