BY KAREN ROSEN
Gary Hall Jr.’s red, white and blue boxing robe was so brash, so unquestionably quirky, that it is now enshrined in the International Swimming Hall of Fame before he did.
The man himself was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame presented by Allstate in July and will be part of the ISHOF Class of 2013. Hall won 10 Olympic medals — five gold, two silver, three bronze — in three Olympic Games from 1996 to 2004. NBC Sports Network is broadcasting the Hall of Fame induction ceremony Aug. 23.
But he said the swimmer who wore that robe to the starting blocks at big meets instead of sweats, shadow boxed and flexed his muscles to the delight of the crowd was not the real Gary Hall Jr. It was all an act.
“I think I just created a campy persona that I could hide behind,” said Hall, 37, now a diabetes healthcare consultant. “I didn’t want anything to do with fame or attention; that’s certainly not why you get into the sport of swimming.
“I knew that it accompanies most elite level of accomplishment in the sport and I needed to figure out how to deal with that. My strategy was to create an alter ego that enjoyed or embraced that aspect of it a little bit more.”
The swimming world, by and large, embraced it with him.
“I think his middle name is ‘Surprise,’ because he just gave us so many different surprises through his career that you kind of looked forward to,” said Rowdy Gaines, Olympic gold medalist and television commentator. “He took swimming out of the norm, and I think it was great. Our sport became a little bit stodgy and he took swimming out of the 20th century and brought it into the 21st century.”
Hall was determined to don the robe – featuring its American flag motif -- before the 50-meter freestyle at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. The move not only demonstrated his patriotism, but also landed him in hot water.
Because of concerns about terrorism, the U.S. Olympic Committee did not flaunt the flag or “USA” on its uniforms. Hall told the swim team manager that he knew there were uniform issues, which included sponsorship deals requiring athletes to wear team apparel, “but the robe was a psychological prerace routine and I just don’t want to change my routine prior to the biggest meet of my life.”
Hall suggested honoring team policy by wearing the team uniform, but having the robe draped over his shoulders. The manager refused.
“I said, ‘OK, I understand,’” Hall said, “and I knew at that point I was going to break the uniform policy and suffer the consequences.”
Besides maintaining his pre-race routine, Hall was adamant that he be allowed to show his national colors.
“I felt very strongly that if there’s a time to be patriotic, it’s when you’re representing your country internationally,” he said, “and how few people have this opportunity to do that? Politicians, our military and Team USA at the Olympic Games. For the rest of my life, that will be my greatest honor, being able to do that proudly.”
Hall rolled the robe up into a towel and carried it into the “ready room,” where only athletes are allowed. He said the team manager tried to force his way in to prevent him from wearing the robe. “He’s lunging at me with arms extended like he’s trying to choke me, and everybody in the ready room is looking back and forth between him and me, looking at me like, ‘What have you done?’” Hall said. “Members of Team USA had to carry him away kicking and screaming, and that was 30 seconds to a minute before we were paraded out to the blocks to compete in my 10th and final Olympic race.”
Hall won the race by .01 of a second over his training partner Duje Draganja of Croatia, repeating as Olympic champion in the event. At age 29, he also was the oldest male swimmer to represent the United States at the Olympic Games since 1924 and the oldest male swimmer to win an Olympic individual gold medal.
“It worked out,” he said. “I won the gold medal and it was a happy ending.”
Well, actually, he was fined $5,000 by USA Swimming for not wearing the team uniform. A few months later, Hall received an award from the federation for the humanitarian work he was doing towards diabetes awareness, research and prevention.
“No hard feelings at all,” Hall said.
Growing up in Phoenix in one of the first families of American swimming, Hall said, “There were a lot of expectations,” and he went along with them “reluctantly.”
He made his first appearance at the Olympic Games in Montreal in 1976 as a toddler. His father, Gary Hall, Sr., was also on three U.S. Olympic teams, earning two silver medals and a bronze from 1968 to 1976. They are the only father-son duo to compete — and medal — in three Games apiece.
In Montreal, Hall Sr. was not only the U.S. flagbearer at the Opening Ceremony, but also he paraded his son around the pool deck. Hall’s uncle, Charles Keating III, was another member of that U.S. Olympic swim team.
Hall said that growing up around swimming pools and swim meets provided “more of an advantage than any genetic endowment.”
While his father swam butterfly and the individual medleys, Hall had the fast-twitch muscles to make him a pure sprinter, as well as a 6-foot-6 frame.
Hall calls the 50 meter freestyle “a shoot-out.” “It’s as much a psychological race as it is a physical race,” he said, “and those that are best in the 50 are not just incredible athletes, but the very best in the sport at racing.”
Hall prided himself on his gift for race psychology, which began in the ready room and extended to the blocks. He compares his robe and muscle flexing to Usain Bolt’s pre-race mugging for the cameras and posturing and Michael Phelps swinging his arms around atop the blocks.
“Gary was so gifted physically, and that helped overcome the laidback, laissez-faire attitude that a lot of people thought he had,” Gaines said. “Plus, he was an incredible racer. He loved to get on the blocks, and he had a tremendous amount of self confidence.
“Every time he got on the blocks, even if he wasn’t the best swimmer, he believed he was.”
Hall’s rivalry with Russian swimmer Alexander Popov added drama — and trash-talking, particularly on Popov’s part — to his events.
“That certainly was fun at the time,” said Hall, who showed up for one race in leather motorcycle pants to tweak his rival. “He very much wanted to beat me and I very much wanted to beat him. He won some and I won some.”
Popov won the 50 and 100 in 1996 in Atlanta, with Hall the runner-up in both races, while Hall won gold medals on the 400-meter freestyle and 400-meter medley relays. He had the fastest leg in history on the freestyle relay, 47.45 seconds.
Then in March 1999, Hall was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes and “my perspective and my life veered drastically,” he said. “Since the day I was diagnosed, I’ve never taken less than five shots of insulin in a day, and that’s just to stay alive.”
Two doctors told him it would be physically impossible to continue as an elite swimmer, but Hall persevered, learning to manage his diabetes. Even though he was the Olympic silver medalist, Hall said he was not mentioned in the media guide leading into the Olympic Trials as a contender.
“I think I had been written off by almost everyone, so I surprised a lot of people, myself included,” he said.
Hall set the American record of 21.76 seconds at 50 meters. Racing the event in Sydney, he won his first individual gold medal, sharing the honor with friend and teammate Anthony Ervin in a dead heat at 21.98 seconds.
“It took me what seemed a very long time to figure out what had happened,” Hall said.
Seeing the “1” by his name on the scoreboard, he started to celebrate. “It’s the top of the world, you just won at the Olympic Games, and I noticed that Anthony in the lane next to me is celebrating more exuberantly than I am. Oh no, did I read it wrong?”
Hall finally realized they had tied. “It was the last thing that I expected,” he said, “but the best thing I could have hoped for.”
However, other memories of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games still cause him pain. He said a pre-Olympic blog post was blown out of proportion by the Australian media. Hall wrote:
“I like Australia, in truth. I like Australians. The country is beautiful, and the people are admirable. Good humor and genuine kindness seem a predominant characteristic. My biased opinion says that we will smash them like guitars. Historically the U.S. has always risen to the occasion. But the logic in that remote area of my brain says it won't be so easy for the United States to dominate the waters this time. Whatever the results, the world will witness great swimming.”
That “smash them like guitars” line became a rallying cry for the Australians, who handed the United States its first defeat in the Olympic men’s 400-meter freestyle relay.
“To this day I’m really hurt at the inappropriate way that was handled by the Australian media,” Hall said. “It made me look horrible … and it caused me tremendous harm and pain.
“I still have some healing that needs to be done over that and I don’t think I’ll ever really heal from that experience.”
Hall said there were repercussions in 2004, when he was only allowed to swim the preliminaries of the relay, which went on to earn a bronze medal.
“I didn’t want to make a stink over it,” Hall said. “But it took everything I had to refocus my energies on the 50 and win that and I think it was just redeeming in a lot of ways.”
At 33, he made one last Olympic attempt, placing fourth in the Trials. “I was able to tell people I was part of the tech suit era,” Hall said. “I pushed it as far as I could and I’m proud of my swimming accomplishments and I don’t have any regrets.”
Hall attended the 2012 Olympic Trials and London 2012 Olympic Games and was on “cloud nine” to see old pal Ervin complete a remarkable comeback and make the U.S. team.
Although he swims only for health reasons, Hall did compete in a sprint distance triathlon as a fundraising effort. “I think I was 552nd place,” Hall said. “I might have been 11th after swimming.”
He and wife Elizabeth have two children, Gigi, 6, and Charlie, 4, and live in the Santa Barbara, Calif., area.
Hall works with Platinum Performance and Sanford Health as an independent health care consultant and also serves on many boards, including the leadership board at the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute.
“You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone that’s been more active in diabetes care advocacy since my diagnosis,” he said. “I derive such pleasure from those efforts.”
And though Hall never sought attention through his swimming, he said recognition by the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame “means so much to me.”
“The one meet that meant the most to me, that was worth confronting that aspect of fame and was worth that effort, was the Olympic Games,” he said. “The Olympic Games was the only meet I ever cared about, that I really would turn out for in a big way.
“So to be recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee for those efforts, and for whatever small contribution I was able to make to the Olympic Movement, is such an honor and such a privilege.”
Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.