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Saturday, August 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Ron Judd / Times staff columnist
When he says the word, Gary Hall Jr., gold medal hanging around his neck, is looking up into the dark Athens sky, the way he often does when he's pondering something deeply.
It's a simple answer to a complicated question: Given his age (29), his chronic disease and, amazingly, obstacles raised this week by his own coach, what keeps him going?
"Defiance," he says again, for emphasis.
It defines him.
He explains, ticking off the previous warm Olympic nights like this one, nights that mark four-year intervals in a remarkable life:
"The first time (Atlanta), they said I was too immature, too much of a loose cannon," he said. "The second time (Sydney), they said you have diabetes, you can't do it. This time, you're too old, you have diabetes, you can't do it.
"They keep on tacking on more excuses and, well, you know defiance."
He defied the odds again last night, shedding his Apollo Creed costume and defending his Olympic crown in the 50-meter freestyle, the waterborne drag race of the Summer Games, beating one of his Race Club swim team training partners, Duje Draganja of Croatia by one one-hundredth of a second.
He did it from Lane 2, not the place you want to be for this race. And he did it after a week in which U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese pushed him aside, again and again, like some old party dress worn once too often.
Reese's decision earlier this week to leave Hall on the bench for the 400 freestyle relay in favor of, among others, Ian Crocker, who was as sick as a dog and served as the lead balloon that sunk America to third qualifies as the second-most addle-brained swim decision of the Olympics.
The first was Reese's inexplicable choice, from the start, to ignore Hall's offer to serve as a leader on this team.
When Hall offered, minutes after winning the 50 meters at the U.S. Olympic trials, to serve as team captain, people snickered. Just Gary being Gary.
But he was dead serious. He wanted to show that as a mature adult, businessman, husband and doting father of two Chihuahuas, he could be a mentor.
Hall looked pretty fast last night; his time was five-hundredths of a second better than four years ago in Sydney, when he tied for the gold with another unconventional training partner, Anthony Ervin.
Asked about the relay, Hall let some anger flow.
"It's something I take very personally," he said. "I took it very personally when we lost our relay to Australia in 2000. And I very much wanted to be part of the team that reclaimed that gold medal.
"I didn't want to come across as being bitter, but I was bitter. I just tried to stay positive and focus on the 50."
He didn't show up at the pool the next day. In fact, he hustled right out of Athens, breaking another eight or 10 rules along the way, not to mention defeating the largest security system ever devised by mankind.
He met his wife, Elizabeth, on the island of Hydra for a day of emotional recharge.
"I'd been in a hotel room since trials, and I was just going crazy," he said. "I was just bored out of my mind."
Did he train on the island, take a swim in the ocean?
"Well, I ate near the beach."
They sneaked him back in by curfew.
"I guess now that it's all over, I can say that without them putting me in shackles," he said in jest. "I have no idea what's going to happen to me, and I don't really care."
This is Gary Hall's way. He doesn't train like other athletes, think like other athletes, feel like other athletes. He just beats other athletes' brains out in the swimming pool, time after time, year after year, Games after Games.
The man, outwardly all boxer trunks, muscle flexes and braggadocio, inwardly conscientious and thoughtful, is a hero to many of the world's swimmers. His feat last night remaining the fastest man across the pool as he nears 30, all the while fighting Type I diabetes was remarkable.
Earlier this week, Reese, defending his bad decision on the relay, suggested Hall was all past, no future. It doesn't matter what you did a year ago, or even four years ago, he said. It's what you're doing today.
Here's what Gary Hall did this day: He injected himself with insulin eight times between the time he arose and the time he beat the fastest swimmers in the world to win a gold medal.
Sorry, but in the real world as opposed to the insular, chlorinated world of Reese and his cohorts that qualifies Hall to be something we don't see that often anymore: a hero.
He long has been one to young swimmers. But since Sydney, he has become an even greater inspiration to tens of millions of people with diabetes, people who struggle just to get through each day.
He travels the country and meets with them. These are the people who inspire him, he says, right to the time he leaves the blocks.
Maybe that's why, as he rose again on the medal stand last night, Hall struggled so much with emotion a choked-up feeling he said he really couldn't explain.
Maybe a few million other people around America can.
With 10 Olympic medals, Hall now stands as one of the most decorated U.S. Olympians, ever. But he has never mouthed the words to "The Star Spangled Banner" with as many people standing there with him, vicariously, as there were last night.
He will go down in history as one of the greatest sprint swimmers who ever lived. Last night's gold cemented his place in history.
Can he keep going to Beijing in four years?
"Yes. Sure. Why not?"
We should all be so lucky. Another four years of driving coaches crazy, making big waves, saying things he shouldn't and then backing them up, with the whole world watching.
He is, after all, the fastest man in the world on water again. Isn't he?
"Unquestionably," he said, slipping back into character and breaking into a grin before being bodily towed off to a news conference. "I'll take anybody, anywhere, anytime. There's nobody who can beat me on the water."
Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or at email@example.com
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