American Olympic hopeful Jessica Hardy is peerless in the pool
Jessica Hardy's story of tears and trauma outside the pool is unique and well documented. In the water, where suits and strokes vie for uniformity, she remains just as peerless.
First the dry-land drama: A positive drug test kept Hardy out of the 2008 Olympics -- after she qualified for the U.S. Olympic team -- and out of competition for one year. It was clenbuterol, the same prevalent performance-enhancing stimulant that stripped cyclist Alberto Contador of his 2010 Tour de France title. Last week, major league pitcher Guillermo Mota received a 100-game suspension after testing positive for clenbuterol a second time. Contador blamed bad beef. Mota's agent cited children's cough syrup.
Hardy argued that a contaminated supplement caused her positive. Two arbitration panels agreed it was accidental. Her suspension was reduced from two years to one, but she still went into what she called survival mode. In a March espnW blog titled "I'm getting better, not bitter," she wrote she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression during the ban.
Back in the pool, she persevered, breaking two world records in her 2009 comeback meet. The energetic, blonde Californian, "the thoroughbred" as her coach describes her, swims unlike anybody else in the world. Perhaps unlike anybody else ever. Not because of how fast she can swim -- though she still holds those records -- but for the way Hardy goes about it. She specializes in two strokes -- breaststroke and freestyle -- that are Jets and Sharks in terms of technique.
Michael Phelps and Dana Vollmer are elite in both the butterfly and freestyle. Ryan Lochte and Natalie Coughlin excel in the backstroke and freestyle. But no current man or woman can copy Hardy's double.
"If you go back in the history of swimming," NBC and Universal Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines said, "you can probably name them on one hand."
Gaines said the breaststroke can't be learned, at least not the breakneck way Hardy does it. She owns the world record in the 50-meter breast (29.80), not an Olympic event, and the 100 breast (1:04.45). Both times came while wearing the now-banned high-tech suits.
So Hardy was born a breaststroker. But she also developed into one of the best U.S. sprint freestylers over the last five years, winning the 50 and 100 free at the 2011 winter nationals. She'll show that versatility at this weekend's Charlotte UltraSwim, the next-to-last USA Swimming Grand Prix before the Olympic trials (June 25-July 2).
Hardy will swim the 50 and 100 breast, 50 and 100 free and, for kicks, the 50 butterfly in Charlotte. She tapped the 100 breast, 50 free and 100 free for Omaha's trials, opening the door for five events including relays at the Olympics.
Problem is, Europeans own the 50 and 100 free. The top-placing U.S. women were eighth (Hardy) and seventh (Vollmer), respectively, in those events at the 2011 world championships.
In the 100 breast, Hardy's training mate, world champion Rebecca Soni, has bested Hardy 11 times since those fast suits were outlawed. That's shaping up as a two-woman race at both the U.S. trials and the Olympics, but Hardy is currently the 1b to Soni's 1a.
Neither Hardy nor her coach, Dave Salo, has considered dropping one stroke to benefit medal prospects in the other. It just doesn't work that way. Salo has his swimmers practice multiple strokes to mix it up.
"I was exclusively a breaststroker for most of my career," said Hardy, 25, who didn't swim the freestyle at a consistent, elite level until reuniting with the breaststroke guru Salo in 2007 after two years at the University of California. "Now having the opportunity to do both, I think it's such a better position. There are days, like in breaststroke, I pull my groin once a month and I can't kick breaststroke. If I were just a breaststroker, I would be super frustrated, but that's an opportunity to strengthen my kick in freestyle when that happens. And I learn a lot about my breaststroke technique from training freestyle and vice versa."
Hardy is part of Salo's stable of breaststrokers at the Trojan Swim Club at the University of Southern California. So is four-time male Olympic breaststroke champion Kosuke Kitajima of Japan, as well as American record-holder and cancer survivor Eric Shanteau and Soni. In the pool, Salo separates Hardy and Soni.
"They don't train together," Salo said. "They train in the same pool at the same time, but they're very, very different athletes. Jessica is kind of like that quarter horse, that thoroughbred quarter horse, all out for a quarter of a mile. Rebecca tends to be the mudder. She's in there. She keeps progressing. ... I don't put them up against each other. I think that would be the worst thing to do."
Hardy agrees. She said she swims 70 percent freestyle against 30 percent breaststroke in practice. If she makes it to London, more unique circumstances could come up. Her best shot at an individual medal, the 100 breast final, falls on the same night as the men's 200 free final. No, she's not especially interested in the Phelps-Lochte showdown. She hopes to have her eye on Switzerland's best, Dominik Meichtry.
Meichtry is Hardy's fiancé. He proposed during a Malibu beach sunset in March ("I was totally caught off guard," Hardy said. "I don't even remember what he said."). Meichtry's 200 free in 2008 was the only Olympic swimming Hardy saw on TV, and she might have to scurry from a pool to a monitor in the London Aquatics Centre to watch him again this summer.
The final night of swimming could be even more hectic, as two of Hardy's potential five events are on the docket: the 50 free and 4x100 medley relay. You may remember 41-year-old Dara Torres doing that double in Beijing, rushing so fast from the 50 free medal ceremony that she was still putting on her swim cap at the starting blocks for the relay.
If Hardy makes the U.S. team in both events and reaches those Olympic finals, which won't be easy, she's prepared for that quick turnaround. Common meets often put a breaststroke back to back with a freestyle because nobody is equipped to excel in both strokes. Well, almost nobody.
"I definitely don't feel like it's going to be easy, but I think it's going to be worth it," Hardy said of her planned trials and Olympic schedule. "I'm happy that it's not going to be easy. It's going to be a challenge."