Olympic swimmer Nathan Adrian on testicular cancer diagnosis: I ‘felt betrayed by my own body’

For the first time in forever, Nathan Adrian truly has no idea if he'll have a strong swim Friday. And at this point, it doesn't really matter to the five-time Olympic gold medalist. He's simply elated to be back.

Adrian, a 30-year-old three-time Olympian, was recently diagnosed with testicular cancer. He had two surgeries – one in December to remove the tumor and one in late January to remove some lymph nodes – which forced him to pause his swimming career for the longest time since he was 4, he explained. But this weekend at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Bloomington, Indiana, he's making his return to the pool and is nervously excited about it.

"Win, lose, first, last – I just want to get back in my rhythm, back in my routine," Adrian told For The Win. "That's what I strive for, what I wish I had through the entire treatment process. … Now I'm finally here, and I have no idea whether or not I'm going to swim fast. But the fact is I actually get to compete, and I'm happy."

He'll race in the 100-meter freestyle Friday and the 50-meter free Sunday. He won Olympic gold in the 100 at the 2012 London Games and bronze in both events in Rio in 2016.

Nathan Adrian (right) with Michael Phelps, Cody Miller and Ryan Murphy after winning the 4×100 medley relay in Rio. (Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)

Adrian said he started physical therapy immediately after his second surgery. Not allowed to carry more than 15 pounds for weeks after his procedure, he was doing things like lifting a can of soup over his head. At 6-foot-6, he also estimated he lost 10 to 15 pounds, dropping down to about 215 before eventually gaining it all back.

But enduring the immediate recovery after his surgeries – which included "five holes cut in my abdomen" – was only a tiny part of his journey.

Physically, the left side of his body – and not just where incisions were made – is lagging behind his right side. After his surgeries, he overcompensated by relying on his right arm, right leg and right-side muscles. So he's been reteaching his left everything how to engage, which ranges from work in the weight room to brushing his teeth while balancing on his left foot.

"[It's] super random stuff like my left leg is not as explosive right now as it normally is," Adrian said. "I don't sweat out of my left foot. That's super random and super weird."

He laughed at the idea that he has his pre-surgery power off the blocks, or that his strength with each stroke is back. But he's progressing and is obviously in good enough shape to compete.

"This is a journey that's going to last much much longer than four or five months," he said. "I wish I was superhuman like that – like Wolverine and be able to recover that quickly."

Nathan Adrian during the men's 100m freestyle semifinal at Rio. (Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)

Longterm, he added that he expects to "deal with these bilateral asymmetries probably somewhat for the rest of my life." But for all the physical challenges he faces, the mental side of a cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery, especially for a professional athlete, is particularly daunting.

Without his years-long routine of swimming and training for up to eight hours a day – and occasionally more – Adrian said he needed to keep himself busy in a sometimes futile effort to feel normal again.

"Otherwise, I'd sit there and feel bad for myself, and I'd watch Netflix all day," he said.

Still, the same questions that flooded his mind when he was first diagnosed resurface when he has down time. Will he still be able to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? Will he ever compete at the same level he once did? Doctors caught the cancer early, but what if he falls into the tiny percent of incurable testicular cancer patients? What if he still needs chemo? When part of his body hurts, is that another tumor?

It’s go time!!! The picture doesn’t show it but I am stoked to finally race again this weekend in Bloomington! pic.twitter.com/5Yns8l6oE4

"For as much as I was taking care of it, part of me felt betrayed by my own body," Adrian said. "But it was kind of a freak accident, so you have to forgive yourself."

"I still have to listen to podcasts to go to sleep these days because if not, my head starts to spin and you start thinking crazy thoughts," he continued. "There were times of waking up and just bursting into tears. I don't speak about that a ton because I don't particularly like reliving it, but it doesn't mean it wasn't there. It doesn't mean you're not worried about your own life and safety."

Along with support from his wife, Hallie, and his mom, Cecilia, Adrian had help from his teammates – he trains at UC Berkeley, where he also went to college – and other athletes. He said Lance Armstrong and Olympic swimmer Eric Shanteau, who both had testicular cancer, reached out. Katie Ledecky sent a handwritten card.

Without needing chemotherapy, there is no current evidence that Adrian still has cancer. But he said he's on active surveillance protocol for the next few years, which includes an MRI every three months and blood tests every two months.

He said he was dealt a "pretty intense dose" of perspective on life, realizing that his goal of competing in a fourth Olympics could still be ripped away from him with one visit to his doctors.

Adrian expects to be emotional at some point this weekend, but he has no idea when. Maybe it's when he's behind the blocks for this first race since December, maybe it's right after he competes or when he has a moment to himself. With the help of his tunnel vision mentality from before his diagnosis, he's focused on his health with his eye on Tokyo next summer.

"I'm not over it, but it's something I have accepted," he said. "This isn't Rick and Morty. I can't use my portal gun and go to a different universe where I don't have cancer. It's really about doing what you can and controlling what you can."

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