Some winter mornings in Los Angeles break warm and soft. This was not one of them.
It had rained overnight, and there were fast clouds scudding overhead, and the thermometer said it was 49 degrees at 7:30 Thursday morning. The water in the USC pool was warm, as always, 80 degrees. But on the deck it was chilly and it was way early and now there were two solid hours of swimming to be done.
No one wants to know how hard you work in March. They just want to see the results come July, when the Olympic Games get underway in London. But this is when what happens this summer gets determined.
And perhaps no one is more determined than Jessica Hardy.
Four years ago, after the U.S. Trials, Jessica Hardy seemed on top of the swim world. She had qualified for the 2008 Beijing Games in four events: the 100-meter breaststroke, the 50 freestyle and two relays.
Then, though, she found out that she had tested positive for the banned substance clenbuterol.
Jessica and Dominik Meichtry, who went to grammar school in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and college at Berkeley and swims at the Olympics for the Swiss team — his dad works in the airline business — have been dating for six years now. She turns 25 this month; he is 27.
The day she found out, she called him; she was in Palo Alto, he in Berkeley; he borrowed a car from Dana Vollmer, another top-flight U.S. swimmer, and drove down to see Jessica; he was so distracted he got in a fender-bender. “It was just bad,” he said.
They went to a hamburger place. They ordered. The food just sat there and got cold. He had to leave the next day, to go to a pre-Games training camp. He didn’t know whether to go. Go, she said. He was so addled that he thought his flight leaving at 1 meant 1 in the afternoon; it had left 1 in the morning.
He explained the situation to the airport staff. They got him on another flight. He got to Singapore at 3 in the morning. Doping control officers, apparently suspicious, knowing his connection with Hardy, were there to meet him. “I was freaking out,” he said.
Their phone bill that month, he said, was “skyrocketing.” He said, “I remember one conversation between us was that I should swim,” meaning at the Games. “She said I deserved to be there and I should swim for her, too, and be selfish about it.
“… She wanted me to do well and wanted something for the both of us.”
He made the Olympic final in the 200 meters, finishing sixth.
Back home, meanwhile, Hardy was trying to sort out exactly what had happened. She and her team, including the immensely capable California-based lawyer Howard Jacobs, figured out that the clenbuterol had gotten into a dietary supplement she had been taking.
To make a long story short, the two-year suspension typical in even a first doping case was cut in half.
And then last year the International Olympic Committee announced that Hardy would be cleared to compete in London, assuming she qualifies at the U.S. Trials, which get underway in late June in Omaha.
The takeaway from all this: For sure Jessica Hardy tested positive. But she did not deliberately do anything wrong.
She is no cheater.
And in a weird way, getting suspended might have been the best thing to have ever happened to her.
“If you had asked me that in 2009,” she said, “I would have punched you. I was so angry. But it has turned into that.”
Because while she missed the 2008 Games — perhaps 2012 is her time.
In her return to competition in 2009, she set three world records, two in the same race. That’s angry.
“I started off being furious in my training because I was suspended. It was just — train as hard as you can. I was doing too much too fast. It was just too much emotion. I felt like a bird in a cage when I should have been out soaring. It was almost reckless.
“Dave,” meaning Dave Salo, at USC, the coach who has worked with Hardy for years now, “knew that was going to happen. So he only let me train two or three times in the water.”
Over the years since, the trick has been to, as she put it, “find happiness.”
She said, “I am doing well in both strokes in practice. I am extremely motivated. But not reckless. It’s a calm motivation. When I am too motivated I spin out of control. I have too much explosiveness to hold the water. When I want things too much, it doesn’t work. I have to be calm, strong and happy.”
She added a moment later, “It’s a mental thing. I am just really mentally strong. I want it. It has made me focus on the bigger picture than just now. Do I really want it and what does it mean to me?”
In the group she trains with at USC are, among others, Rebecca Soni and Yuliya Yefimova of Russia. At the 2011 swim world championships in Shanghai, they went 1-2-3 in the 50 breast: Hardy, Yefimova, Soni.
Of course the 50 is not an Olympic event. Soni is the Beijing 200 breast gold medalist and 100 silver medalist. Yefimona was just 16 in Beijing; she finished fourth there in the 100 and fifth in the 200.
Hardy is the world-record holder in the 100 breast. But she did not swim the event in Shanghai, taking as she put it, a “mental vacation” from it last year, part of the big-picture plan.
Which includes training at USC with a bunch of world-class men. Among them: Ricky Berens, who raced on the 800-meter free relay with Michael Phelps that won gold in Beijing and is, moreover, Soni’s boyfriend; Dave Walters, who swam in the prelims in Beijing in that same relay and thus earned gold himself; and Ous Mellouli, the 1500 gold medalist in Beijing.
And, of course, Meichtry.
“What’s really special about Jess,” he said, while she listened, “is that any other person would have this anger inside them …
“It’s a little scary for her competitors how calm she is. We obviously talk about London. Quite often. There are 140-something days left. But she really just takes one step at a time. She’s not putting all this pressure on herself, saying, ‘Oh, at the Trials everything has to go right.’ That’s what has changed. She has become a lot more calm person, a lot more grateful person over everything that has happened to her.”
They looked at each other with obvious affection, a couple that had been through an enormous test of what each means to each other. She smiled at him. And he at her.
He said, “We make a great team.”