- Wayne Drehs, ESPN Senior Writer
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IRVINE, Calif. -- Jessica Hardy knows what they're thinking. Sometimes, she can even hear their whispers.
She knows they call her a cheat; she knows they believe her 2008 positive test for a banned supplement should erase every accomplishment in a career that's included five world championship medals and the current world record in the 100-meter breaststroke.
It's what still haunts the 23-year-old swimmer every time she steps on a pool deck: those detractors' words.
"She is hell-bent on proving she was a world-record holder before this and a world-record holder after this," said Dave Salo, Hardy's coach. "But when you go through something like this, it's not OK to perform poorly. If you perform poorly, people go, 'See, see, she was on drugs.' And if you perform well, it's 'See, see, she's still on drugs.' You can't win. It's just something that is going to take time."
At the 2008 Olympic trials, Hardy tested positive for clenbuterol, a drug that increases aerobic capacity and is approved in some countries to treat asthma. She faced a two-year ban, but argued she unknowingly ingested the drug. An American Arbitration Association panel reduced her ban to one year.
She returned to the pool last summer and set world records in the 50 and 100 breaststrokes. In May, the Court for Arbitration of Sport upheld the panel's decision and rejected an appeal from the World Anti-Doping Agency to extend her suspension to two years. This week, the path to redemption will take Hardy to the biggest international meet since her suspension, the Pan Pacific Championships, in the Southern California pool she trained in as a teenager.
"I had a very rough suspension," said Hardy, who is now so paranoid about what she puts in her body that she won't even drink Gatorade. "It was a very emotional, I had a hard time. Life wasn't fun. But now it is again. Swimming on the national team, having the opportunity to put on a USA cap every day and put on USA sweats and represent my country again ... I appreciate it so much more now."
But wearing the red, white and blue in the biggest international meet of the year almost didn't happen. At the U.S. nationals earlier this month, Hardy struggled in the finals of the 100 breaststroke and 50 freestyle and finished seventh and sixth, respectively, in the events. Her summer of redemption quickly turned into a nightmare.
"That night I just cried, a lot," she said. "I was really disappointed in myself. But I took the day off, talked to the people who have confidence in me and tried to put my head back together. I just needed to relax."
"We gave her time to be upset and pissed off," Salo said. "But at a certain point, we had to tell her to just knock it off."
After a day away from the pool, Hardy bounced back and finished second in the 100 freestyle, earning her spot on the Pan Pacific team. Overcoming the disastrous start to nationals and focusing on the free this week has been liberating for Hardy.
"It opens up for an even better Pan Pacs," she said. "I've lost that anxiety."
In addition to the 100 free, Hardy will swim the 50 free, butterfly and breaststroke. The 50 fly is the first event of the meet on Wednesday.
"I keep telling her she could win that 50 fly," Salo said. "Nobody is expecting much out of her. She has some great raw speed. There's no element of thought. You just get up and hit the wall."
But with every stroke, there will be the whispers. And in no race do they bother Hardy more than in the 100 breaststroke, where Salo says she is still fighting "mental demons." Salo is hoping to convince Hardy to at least swim the preliminary heat in the event. Whether or not she will remains to be seen.
"She doesn't want to do a swim and then swim poorly. She doesn't like that feeling," Salo said. "But even if she swims poorly, she needs to learn to get through that and not focus so much on the negative. She worries too much about what people think if she has a bad swim."
Maybe that's understandable considering what Hardy has gone through the past two years. And maybe that's why it's not too surprising to hear her only goal for this week: have fun.
"I'm not sure I know how to do it," she said. "But that's what I need to let happen."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jessica Hardy knows the stain from her controversial one-year ban won't go away in one meet, but a strong week at the Pan Pacs could help her cause.