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Originally published December 27, 2010 at 8:39 PM | Page modified December 28, 2010 at 10:04 AM

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Restless Native

Gary Hall Jr.: Olympic medalist now a hero to diabetics

Olympic gold-medal swimmer Gary Hall Jr. is now a Seattleite, working out at the Medgar Evers pool in the Central District. It's a long way from the sunny pool decks of Florida.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Wade Bartlett was sitting there in the sauna, minding his business, letting the hot water pull out some of the pain of a swim workout at Medgar Evers Pool in Seattle's Central District.

A tall guy seated nearby seemed somehow familiar: sculpted shoulders and long wing span. A trace of sun-bleached hair. And then the giveaway — a telltale shoulder tattoo of a "sea griffin," the emblem of The Race Club, a Florida Keys training enclave for the world's elite swimmers.

Flashing back, Bartlett could see the same brash guy at three Olympic Games, busting out of a red, white and blue boxing robe and flexing his biceps on the pool deck in Atlanta, Sydney and Athens.

"Oh, my God," Bartlett thought to himself. "That's Gary Hall!"

After a quick introduction, Bartlett summoned his daughter, Evelyn, 6, and pointed out the Olympic legend.

"Here's the fastest man in the world," he said.

To which Hall smiled appreciatively and said: "Not anymore."

The sighting of Gary Hall Jr., the colorful, 10-time Olympic medalist and one of the world's all-time great sprint swimmers, in an inner-city community pool was no fluke, and in fact has become a regular occurrence. Hall, 36, moved to Seattle a year ago, pursuing a postathletic career in brokering U.S. medical and dental supplies to what he hopes will become an exploding market in China and Europe. It's all part of his devotion to combating the effects of diabetes, which he was diagnosed with himself at the peak of his swimming career a decade ago.

He is director of business development for b2d Marketing, a Lake City firm founded by dentist Michael Silverman, who brought Hall on board when it turned out the two were pursuing the same business. Hall and wife Elizabeth (a local native with roots deep enough to remember the Mukilteo Mercantile in her hometown) and their two children and three dogs live in Madrona.

Medgar Evers Pool is nearby. It became Hall's workout hangout of choice after an unfortunate introduction to another nearby pool, at Seattle University.

"They wouldn't let me in," Hall says with a smile.

He was neither student, faculty nor staff, and apparently wasn't recognized as one of the world's top swimmers.

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Hall laughed it off, speculating that perhaps if he had a bit more, say, Michael Phelps in him, he might have asked, "Do you know who I am?"

No matter. He feels at home at Evers — a welcome respite from the challenging and often perplexing world of international business. The transition hasn't been without bumps: The worrisome details of keeping up with business contacts on the other side of the globe "keeps me up most nights," he confesses.

But it's been easier than that of many other Olympic athletes, many of whom discover that their decades-long, singular focus on sport has left them ill-equipped for "adult" careers.

In an odd way, Hall received a boost from his health problem. His 1999 diagnosis of type 1, or insulin-dependent, diabetes shook him to the core and threatened to end his swimming career. Rather than throw in the towel, he became an expert at his ailment, learning to juggle insulin treatments and grueling workouts in a way few others have accomplished.

Not only did Hall keep swimming, he improved, winning gold medals in the 50-meter freestyle, swimming's hotshot drag race, in both Sydney and Athens after being diagnosed with the disease.

Hall also became active in the national and local diabetic community, serving on medical boards and foundations that work to prevent the disease, particularly in children. Networking in those groups led him to his current work brokering medical and dental supplies — all related in some way to diabetic health.

His defiant Olympic success and cocksure public persona — he was fined $5,000 by USA Swimming for wearing a stars-and-stripes boxing robe on the pool deck before his gold-medal race in Athens — made him a hero to diabetics around the globe.

And, while it might come as a surprise to those who only saw him flexing his muscles on the start blocks, Hall never has turned away diabetics looking to him for help or inspiration. Young athletes seeking counsel by dialing a number listed on Hall's website have been shocked to find it answered, no matter the hour, by Hall.

That ability to use his fame to make diabetics "a little less scared" brought the same reward his current work does, he says, noting the disease still carries a tremendous stigma in China.

Still, Hall is forthright about just how little swimming every day for 30 years did to prepare him for the business world.

"This is very different than a sunny pool deck," says the lanky swimmer, who sits next to a daylight lamp left perpetually on while he's in his office. "There are days that I miss the sunny pool deck."

Part of what drives him, he acknowledges, is the wince-inducing manner in which other prominent athletes have visibly failed to let go of past glory.

"I never want to be the 50-year-old, 'That Swimming Guy,' " Hall says, chuckling. "I do not want to be Mark Spitz talking about what he did in 1972."

A mix of business and swimming also runs strong in his blood. Hall's maternal uncle, Charles Keating III, swam in the 1976 Olympics. Hall's father won swimming medals in the 1968, 1972 and 1976 Olympics.

And his grandfather, Charles Keating Jr., is a former national swimming champion and businessman who later became infamous for his role in the late-1980s savings-and-loan scandal, then the largest banking scandal in U.S. history.

Keating's early-'90s convictions for fraud and racketeering in that case were overturned. Hall considers his financier grandfather, now 87, a role model.

"Ambition is a blessing and a curse," he says. "I'm stuck with it."

When he needs to de-stress, Hall occasionally slips out of the office early for a lap swim (sometimes a mile, never more) at Medgar Evers, where it is safe to say he's the only regular who parks a white Jaguar outside.

The city pool won't win any natatorium design awards, but it's a nice facility, and Hall effectively blends into the crowd. When he visited one recent evening, the young woman at the front desk had no idea who he was, but lit up when informed she had just checked in a three-time Olympian.

That night, like most, Hall stretched out on the pool deck while waiting for the 5:30 p.m. lap swim time to commence. He soon found himself surrounded by rambunctious children — the Central Area Aquatics Team, which under coach Lisa Dahl has nearly doubled in numbers in the past 18 months.

Hall never has had to be asked twice to talk to wide-eyed kids.

The first time she approached him, "Gary gave them about an hour," Dahl says. "He always comes over to say something. There's never a hesitation. He's very generous."

This is all the more impressive considering Hall's somewhat-rocky transition to the rest of life as a Northwesterner.

"Gary is a fish out of water," wife Elizabeth surmises flatly. She might be understating things.

Hall grew up in Phoenix and spent most of his latter years in South Florida. The short days and "continuous winter" he's experienced since moving here a year ago are rough.

But he already has learned to drink more coffee and says he's here for the long haul, as long as his work remains rewarding.

So far, so good. He likes knowing that patients overseas are receiving overdue attention for diabetic-related ailments. And that U.S. medical companies are opening new markets in a time of economic distress.

"I'm going to drive this thing forward," he says.

The impressive thing about Hall always has been that, beneath the costumes, gold medals and hyperbole, lives a complex character who always understood, even at the peak of his success, that life was a whole lot larger than sport. Now he has proved to be something even more rare: a champion savvy enough to figure out not only when, but how, to move on.

Gary Hall Jr. spent his younger years winning a very public, mostly unprofitable, game: fastest man across a pool of water, bar none. He would like to spend the rest of them more quietly, making a living at making a difference.

"I've always maintained that I've had this life and other interests outside of swimming," he says. "It's time to pursue it, with the same dedication. I would like to create something meaningful — something that has an impact on life."

Ron Judd, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, scours the Northwest for stories about its people, places, traditions and endangered icons. Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com

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