By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Almost five years after making the 2008 Olympic team only to have it taken away, Jessica Hardy is still motivated to talk about what happened.
She knows if her experience can help someone else, she’ll never tire of talking about the obstacles she overcame to prove herself and clear her name, and to eventually make her first Olympic team four years later.
“As long as the story can help other people going through difficult times in their own life, I’ll always be happy to tell my story,” Hardy said. “In no way does my 2008 experience define me or the things I have done in my career, but it will forever be a part of it all.
“It has made me a more humble, appreciative and tough person – and I hope that I have shown the world that they can experience the same with their own adversities, whether it be a plateau in their best times, an injury, illness, a divorce in the family, bullying, struggles in school, etc.”
Hardy’s story is a rich but complicated one. Just a few weeks after making the Olympic team, she voluntarily withdrew because she tested positive for an illegal substance at Trials.
She spent the better part of the next year challenging allegations that she had purposefully taken Clenbuterol -- a drug used by sufferers of breathing disorders to increase aerobic capacity, central nervous system stimulation, blood pressure and oxygen transportation – false. She eventually proved it was included and not labeled in a contaminated nutritional supplement.
But before she proved her innocence, Hardy admits she fell into a dark place. She was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression and said she felt a disconnection to the sport during the suspension.
She made a conscious effort to stay off the radar surrounding the time of her positive test so as not to take away focus and attention from the U.S. Olympic team competing in Beijing.
“I deliberately avoided watching (the Olympics),” said Hardy, who would have been a medal threat in both the 50 freestyle and 100 breaststroke as well as relays in Beijing. “It was the most painful thing you can imagine to watch. I ended up watching my fiancé’s (Dominik Meichtry of Switzerland) races, but I still have not watched any of the events that I was supposed to have competed in.”
As she approached 2012 Olympic Trials, Hardy said she took nothing for granted, grateful for every opportunity that stood before her. She just wanted to redeem herself and her name – to prove that she belonged on that 2008 team no matter what the test said.
Hardy made good on those opportunities, earning a spot on her second Olympic team last summer in Omaha, winning the 50 and 100 freestyle events, and just missing her third event with a third-place finish in the 100 breaststroke, in which she holds the world record.
At the Olympics in London, she won bronze in the 400 freestyle relay in American-record time, and later won gold as a member of the 400 medley relay team (swimming the freestyle leg).
Individually, she made the finals in both events but failed to medal. Still, it was the completion of the journey she started four years earlier that had the biggest impact upon her.
“Making the Olympic team last summer was three times sweeter than it ever was in 2008,” Hardy said. “Going through adversity really makes you appreciate the victories. (Along the way) I had to lean on the people closest to me for support, actually ask for help, and keep a very positive mindset.
“I never gave up, never stopped fighting, even when it felt like the entire world was against me. Surviving 2008 set me up to have a longer career than I was anticipating, but it also set me up to be a lot more successful than I ever anticipated. I have already broken 12 world records, and won 23 international medals. Whatever I get to accomplish in the future is because of a lot of hard work and a lot of positivity in my life.”
Since the Olympics, Hardy’s life has been full. A lot more opportunities that weren’t on her radar were offered this year and she said she has loved the switch up. Giving motivational speeches, making hospital visits and doing swim clinics (not to mention all the media – photo shoots, album release parties, attending the Grammy Awards, even race car driving) have proven to be “fun” and not taking life too seriously has kept life and swimming fresh.
“Time flies when you're having fun!” said Hardy, who is getting married to Meichtry this fall. “It truly has been a whirlwind, and I could not be more grateful of all the experiences!
Next week’s Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships – the meet that will determine this summer’s U.S. team headed to Barcelona for the FINA World Championships – is providing a much-needed break from wedding planning for Hardy.
After focusing mostly on the freestyle sprint the past few years, Hardy has been back to training heavily for her breaststroke specialties and is geared up for some fast races against a loaded field at Nationals.
“Missing out on being able to compete in breaststroke at the Olympics made me realize how much I truly love that stroke,” Hardy said. “I am excited about competing in breaststroke again this year. My training has been going really well, and I hope to get to compete in it internationally again! I will swim the 50 and 100s of both breaststroke and freestyle at our World Champ Trials, see what I make the team in, and determine my schedule from there.”
Still a young 26 and swimming as fast as ever, Hardy said she is excited for the next three years leading up to what she is anticipating will be her last Olympic Trials.
In the meantime, she’s focused on World Championship Trials, her wedding and just enjoying life and swimming for all that they offer.
“I gain more and more perspective as I grow older, and realize how much I truly do love the sport,” said Hardy, who met Meichtry while both swam at the University of California-Berkeley. “I will love to swim for the rest of my life - just eventually I’ll be doing it a little slower than I am now.”