Nathan Adrian to make splash as Winter Commencement speaker

Nathan Adrian

Nathan Adrian, here celebrating anchoring the Team USA 4×100 meter freestyle relay team to an Olympic victory in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, will be his alma mater’s keynote speaker at Berkeley’s Winter Commencement. (Photo by David E. Klutho-USA TODAY)

There’s a delicious irony in Nathan Adrian being named as the keynote speaker for UC Berkeley’s Winter 2018 Commencement come Dec. 15.

Adrian, who graduated with honors from Cal in 2012, never made it to his own graduation ceremony. He’s been a little torn about that ever since; he can’t even tell you who the commencement speaker that year was. (For the record, it was Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt.)

The issue for Adrian was that, in addition to majoring in public health, he was a pretty fair swimmer.

“That’s one of the sacrifices you make to swim,” Adrian said. “I finished my last final on a Thursday, and on Friday I was on a plane to France to join the U.S. Olympic training camp in Vichy. I wanted to be in both places. I wanted to be at my graduation. But I wanted to be in the Olympics.”

Adrian, a freestyle specialist, wound up winning the gold medal in the 100 free later that summer in London.

“The coaches would have let me go to the ceremony. It was my call to choose training,” he said. “I won the 100 free in London, and I won it by one-100th of a second. Was skipping graduation the margin of error? I don’t know. I was sad to miss out on being in Berkeley. I was sad but glad.”

The upcoming Winter Commencement will be held in Haas Pavilion on Dec. 15 at 9:30 a.m., with doors opening at 8:30 a.m.

In addition to Adrian, the graduates will hear from Chancellor Carol Christ and a student speaker.

Adrian said he’s not exactly sure what the direction of his talk will take. He has been married barely a month, and he and his wife, Hallie, just bought their first house. So when the call came, he said “it was out of the blue.” And he thought just maybe he was being teased by some of his Cal swimming teammates.

“It wasn’t that long ago that I graduated,” he said. “Initially I was skeptical, that the guys were trying to prank me. But knowing that the students were asking me, I felt super honored.

“Between getting married, buying the house in Oakland and being asked to be the commencement speaker, this is going to go down to being one of the craziest years ever.”

Adrian, who still trains full time with the Cal swim team as he prepares for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, said he hasn’t had time to nail down what he’ll be talking about. But he said he’ll make sure the graduates know he appreciates how special a degree from Berkeley is.

“I know how crazy it is to balance life in Berkeley between being a student and an athlete,” he said. “Not everyone is an athlete, but doing it at Cal, getting a degree, in my humble opinion, is more difficult than at most. I’ve given other talks in the past, but this one will be special.”

And it’s a good bet that he’ll be talking about his path to becoming an Olympic champion and relating it to his audience.

“Swimming is just like anything else in life,” he said. “You don’t get it. You have to earn it. That’s what sport teaches you.”

More information and tickets are available on the commencement website.