Former American record holder David Nolan has been working to optimize every aspect of his work and athletic life with his sights set on swimming at Olympic Trials in 2020, he told SwimSwam Tuesday – but he is careful not to call the endeavor a formal comeback, and his preparation will differ from almost every other competitor’s.
Regarded as one of the top recruits of the decade at the time of his commitment in 2010, Nolan is largely known for becoming the first man to break 1:40 in the 200 IM his senior year at Stanford. After graduating, he moved to Tempe to train at Arizona State under coach Bob Bowman – and alongside Michael Phelps and Chase Kalisz – in the run-up to Rio.
Nolan, now 26, placed third in the 200 IM at Trials in 2016. He finished 12th in the semi-final of the 100 free, 19th in prelims of the 200 free, and 16th in the 100 fly. In 2012, he posted top-20 finishes in the 100 back and 200 free, but gained time in his 200 IM and finished 40th.
While he is entered to compete in the 100 free at the 2019 Santa Clara International Meet this weekend, Nolan will not actually log his first race since 2016 until the second weekend of July at the 2019 Santa Clara Super-League Meet, as he formally “un-retired” by WADA and USADA standards less than the required six months ago. With that race, he aims to qualify for the 2019 Phillips 66 National Championships, beginning later in the month, then race at a few more meets in the winter, and then ideally at Trials in June of next year.
While race records imply otherwise, Nolan says he never took significant time off out of the water after Omaha in 2016.
“There was a two- or three-week period where I didn’t work out at all because I had heard a bunch of former teammates, say ‘Oh yeah, when I finish swimming, I’m never touching a pool or anything again. Like I don’t even want to work out,'” Nolan told SwimSwam. “And I tried that, and I was just getting so antsy; I was irritable, I was pissed off. I wasn’t happy. I needed that endorphin rush.”
He at first took up an assortment of other endurance sports: rock climbing, running, and biking, to name a few. After a couple of months of that workout routine, he decided to start casually swimming again with friends – once a week, here and there.
“I was just getting so antsy; I was irritable, I was pissed off. I wasn’t happy. I needed that endorphin rush.”
“It kind of went in waves over the next two years, where I was just kind of working out ‘this way’ rather than ‘that way.’ ‘I don’t want to work out in a gym. I don’t have to do that anymore. So you know, I’m going to do a ton of surfing.’ Like, ‘what can I do to change it up here?'”
But Nolan was not finding “value” in working out just to work out. “The goal of being healthy wasn’t enough for me,” he said.
He considered setting a more concrete goal on the track, or doing a triathlon, or trying his hand at open water swimming. The options outside the pool were not particularly appealing, however, and Nolan saw another approach: “A couple of months ago, I was just like, ‘you know, it would kind of be fun to be a sprinter for once in my life.'”
With his career in the tech world in full swing, he faced a decision regarding just how much of his life he could devote to swimming. He consulted with a number of peers and mentors, including Olympians Ryan Murphy and Garrett Weber-Gale, as well as veteran coach Jack Roach, to decide what path to take.
“I was trying to get as much data as possible from people who are Olympians, people who weren’t Olympians, people who know nothing about sports, people in industry, people in business, just to kind of figure out, ‘all right, given all this information, what do I want to do?'”
He realized that the potential “opportunity cost” of not working while going all-in on training for his former signature events was too steep – so Nolan is finding a way to do it all, by training for a limited sprint lineup, which generally requires a lighter training regimen. He plans to race primarily free, but might do an occasional 100 stroke.
“I’m not going to give up on a (non-swimming) career in the next year and a half. They’re pretty important years. So basically what I decided was that I want to continue having high octane career growth while doing something insanely challenging with my physical body,” Nolan said. “And in school, I kind of told myself that I want to produce and make value for the world in some way after my swimming career, which I decided I would finish after the ’16 Games, whether it made it or not. But I also told myself to kind of immerse myself in challenges as much as possible in every domain that I could possibly handle. And that just gives me more satisfaction in life.”
“Going all-in on the sport is what most people would advise doing, and most people are doing. I want to see how close I can get, while continuing on my path to reach my career goals, where the mindset is almost knowing that failure is on the other end. This just motivates me to optimize everything more in my life in general. And that’s super fun.”
“I also told myself to kind of immerse myself in challenges as much as possible in every domain that I could possibly handle. And that just gives me more satisfaction in life.”
So how does Nolan, currently a product manager at autonomous car startup Voyage, manage his schedule?
Training independently, he leaves his Palo Alto house at 5:30 most mornings, starts an hour-long lift around 6:20, then swims for 45 minutes to an hour. “It started out with doing a lot of ‘feel’ work,” Nolan said, noting that Aaron Peirsol used to say he would do skulling-intensive workouts after long breaks from the pool.
After that swim, he goes to work, then fits in another workout – sometimes hot pilates, sometimes core work, or another swim – at night. In the early stages, he was swimming two to three times per week, just a “couple of thousand” yards. Now, he swims four to five times per week, approximately 3,000 yards each time.
“You do have to make sacrifices on [the schedule] front, and I don’t think I’ve actually made too many, quite yet,” Nolan said. “Over time it’s gotten a little bit more intense… I’m starting to get pretty close in like 50s and 100s in practice to where I was when I was in really good shape. So I think things are coming along pretty nicely. But we’ll see when I actually have to dive in with a suit on, like how fast I can actually go.”
Of course, to make the 100 free final at Trials, or even his first Olympic team, would be an obvious goal for which Nolan could shoot. But this stage of his career is about more than the endpoint.
“I’m going to try to do my best and see where that puts me – and I don’t see this as being likely, but I might not make Trials. And if that’s the case, then that’s the case,” he said. “I’m really working to optimizing for extreme health and performance in 100 meters of swimming with the limited amount of time that I have to train.”
Regardless of the outcome, Nolan’s career has put the sport in perspective: “I think a lot of people my age and younger have grown up – and I’m subject to this as well – with this attitude of entitlement,” he said.
“And I think I had that big-time back when I was swimming in both my college and pro career, where I expected my talent to take me to the Olympic team. I expected people to work around my schedule, to make it work for me… I definitely had this mindset that like, ‘you know, everything’s going to be cool for me.’ And I think something that I’ve learned is that that is just not the case… If you want something, you need to figure out how you’re going to get it, and take full ownership of your goal by relentlessly going for it. I’ve set new goals with swimming and my career, and that’s the approach I’m taking to achieve them.”
You can follow Nolan’s dual-career journey at @dnolzz on Instagram.