March 20, 2012

Jessica Hardy wasn't expecting her longtime boyfriend to propose, even when he took a romantic route along the Pacific Coast Highway on their way to a dinner date in Malibu. Not even when he stopped along the way, inviting her down to the beach to watch the setting sun from one of the most beautiful spots on Earth.

Then, just as the sun was slipping beneath the horizon, he popped the question.

Yes! Yes! Yes!

"It was the prettiest thing in the world," Hardy said, still sounding downright giddy as she talked about the recent engagement to Swiss Olympic swimmer Dominik Meichtry.

But before they make wedding plans, there's some unfinished business at the pool.

Four years ago, Hardy qualified for a spot on the U.S. Olympic swimming team, only to have what was then the greatest moment of her life snatched away by a positive test for a banned substance. There would be no trip to Beijing, no glorious climb to the top of the medal stand. Instead, she was stuck at home - angry, depressed and determined to clear her name.

Eventually, an arbitration panel agreed with Hardy's contention that a tainted nutritional supplement was to blame for her result. Instead of the usual two-year ban that goes to dopers on their first offense, she was suspended for half as long. Still, that did little to ease the pain of missing out on her first Olympics.

Rest assured, no one is more eager to get to London than this 25-year-old Californian.

"Ever since then, I've been licking my wounds and recovering and finding my peace of mind again," Hardy said in a recent telephone interview. "I'm putting my body armor back on again. I'm pulling out my sword for battle. I'm really, really, really ready for this summer. I get another chance to fulfill the life dream I've been chasing for so long."

She'll be the first to admit that coming back from such a bitter disappointment has not been entirely smooth waters. In 2009, at her first meet after serving the doping suspension, Hardy set a couple of world records in the breaststroke. But there were some disappointing performances in major meets that followed, the struggles more mental than physical.

Turns out, when something so important is ripped from your grasp, it's hard to bounce back as if nothing happened.

"Looking back, I don't know how I survived a lot of those days," Hardy said. "That was the lowest point in my entire life. I didn't always see the light at the end of the tunnel."

She's been in therapy since the positive test for clenbuterol, a banned stimulant. Hardy might have lost out on the 2008 Olympics, but she found herself in the depths of that misery.

"I'm a completely different person than I was," she said. "I'm definitely more grateful now. I have more empathy. I learned how to be a lot calmer."

Like so many world-class athletes, Hardy has the classic Type A personality - high-strung and highly motivated, someone who expects the best from herself and those around her. If someone can't keep up, well, that's their problem, not hers. It's the sort of self-centered drive one needs to keep touching the wall ahead of everyone else, but it doesn't necessarily provide much of a coping mechanism for extreme disappointment.

"It's a challenge. It's something I work on every single day," Hardy said. "I've been in therapy since the positive test happened, and I've learned that the mental conditioning is just as important as the physical part of the regimen. I've got to stay in touch with that."

There's still a bit of sadness in her voice when the subject turns to 2008.

At the time, she did her best to avoid any mention of the Olympics, other than flipping on the television to watch her boyfriend's races. While Michael Phelps was on the way to winning eight gold medals at the Water Cube, Hardy tried to keep her mind focused on anything but Beijing.

It was an impossible task.

"The lowest point was the opening ceremonies," she recalled. "We were having dinner in a restaurant, and there it was on TV. I couldn't even get away from the opening ceremonies when I went to dinner. I don't think I realized how big the games were. I really had to go out of my way to avoid them. It caught me by surprise. It was everywhere - posters on every street corner, every TV, every public setting, it was all about the Olympics. I don't think I really realized that."

Now she does.

It's driving her even more to take advantage of this second chance.

"I am 100 percent tougher and stronger and a better athlete than I was four years ago," Hardy said. "I've seen what it's like to have extreme heartbreak. I've seen what it's like to have supreme success, breaking world records and winning world championships. I'm ready for anything that comes my way. I feel extremely strong and on top of the world."

Hardy knows there are those who will always look at her with a skeptical eye, who will wonder if she's nothing more a doper who got caught. While she continues to insist she has never knowingly put a banned substance in her body - "I won't even drink vitamin water" - she's not spending any more time pleading her case.

She tested positive. She paid a heavy price.

Her focus is on these Olympics, not the games she missed.

"To me, it's just about moving forward and looking forward to the opportunity I've been given rather than worrying about any negativity that comes my way," Hardy said. "But I'm definitely an advocate for clean sports and drug testing. I'm 100 percent in support of keeping that integrity."

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