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A Wave Of Life

Hall May Not Be Swimming's Poster Boy, but His Desire to Overcome Obstacles Leaves Him Second to None


The pool deck was no doctor's office and the fastest sprinter in America is certainly no doctor, but Gary Hall Jr. knows and needs the mobile routine.

He had been speaking about the disease that has come to define his life. Talking about diabetes, insulin and the pancreas may not make people queasy, but Hall didn't want any reporters landing in the pool at Rose Bowl Aquatics in Pasadena last week when he went about preserving his life.

"If the sight of blood freaks you out . . . ," Hall warned.

He looked at the cameras and note pads around him. No one turned pale and no one moved, so Hall moved on and tested his blood sugar level.

"I didn't even bring my pin-prick thing," he said. "I can just squeeze blood from my fingertips now without even pricking it, from repeatedly stabbing myself over and over."

Within 15 seconds, Hall knew he needed an insulin shot. At times, he requires as many as eight a day. The Hall truth and nothing but the truth became more immediate, painted more vividly by his actions than his words.

"This is my life support," Hall said as he injected himself with another dose of insulin. "Now, it's like washing your hands before a meal. It becomes part of the routine. At first, it's a pain in the neck, especially if you don't like needles. And who likes needles?"

This made Hall think about a new acquaintance he made that day, Eric, who swims for a team in Sierra Madre. Hall spoke about the predicament of a 7-year-old who has to give himself shots of insulin every day.

"He gave me his picture," said the 25-year-old Hall, flipping it over to read the back of it. " 'Age 7, diagnosed type-1 diabetes one year ago. Good luck in Sydney.' That gives me goose bumps. That makes swimming worthwhile."

And so, the poster boy for Generation X slackerdom has morphed into an articulate, authoritative spokesman for a disease afflicting 16 million Americans.

The Gen X image, of course, always bordered on self-parody with Hall fostering a rock 'n' roll image with a wink and a sly smirk.

* "I do it for the chicks and money."

* "Swim like a fish, drink like a fish."

Hall's quotes of 1996 shocked the sensibilities of the staid swimming world when he splashed to two silver medals in the 50- and 100-meter freestyles and two golds in relays at Atlanta.

"I've always been a pretty mellow guy, actually," he said. "There's a reputation that precedes me as being some wild guy, and a lot of people expect that. I go to a swim team and they'll say, 'Do something crazy. Do something really weird.'

"I don't think I'm an extremist. I'm not extremely left, I'm just slightly left of center and most of the swimming establishment is so far right, I seem very far away."

Really, he is not far away, especially behind the scenes. One of Hall's longtime associates from Phoenix tells stories about the swimmer's playful and attentive nature with children when there were no cameras around to record the moment.

Still, there has been one constant. Before and after he was diagnosed with diabetes a year ago, Hall has always had a remarkable talent for raising the bar when the moment is most important. His dad, Gary Hall Sr., a three-time Olympian, joked that his son has two speeds--"fast and slow."

Slow when it doesn't matter.

Fast when it does.

Hall was not sure he would swim the 100 freestyle at the U.S trials in Indianapolis in August because his blood sugar falls in the longer race. After the diabetes diagnosis, he competed in only one 100 race before the U.S. trials, at the Janet Evans Invitational in Los Angeles, in July.

"This whole year prior to the trials there has always been that guessing game of whether Gary is gonna swim it or not," U.S. sprinter Neil Walker said. "I told myself, 'You can count on him being in there.' "

Hall did swim and finished second to Walker in an extremely competitive field. Walker won in 48.71 seconds to Hall's 48.84. Hall's second-place time of 49.53 at the 1996 trials would have placed him seventh at the 2000 trials.

A few days later at the trials, Hall broke the 10-year-old American record in the 50 freestyle with the second-fastest time in history (21.76). He wore Apollo Creed-type boxing trunks on the deck, playfully punched the air and cracked the shy shell of his Phoenix Swim Club teammate, 19-year-old Anthony Ervin, who finished second, also under the old record.

"I'm overjoyed for him," Walker said of Hall. "I can kind of compare him to someone like Lance Armstrong, who conquered testicular cancer and won the Tour de France a couple of times. That's the way I look at Gary. He had this disease put on him all of a sudden, accepted it and dealt with it and became a better swimmer."

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