There is a $200 ice blue Toyota Camry with a busted front fender in the front yard and a white fishing boat that looks as if it's rammed a few piers under the carport. Large plastic fish adorn the living room walls and the freezer is crammed with snapper and dolphin filets. Five-foot metal poles for spear fishing are propped on the screened-in backyard porch, which would allow for a pleasant airflow if it weren't bordered so closely by neighboring yards and an assortment of junk.
You would think a fisherman lived in this humble home perhaps two blocks from the Gulf of Mexico and a half-mile from the Atlantic Ocean, and you would be partially right. The primary resident of this three-bedroom ranch is, depending on the day of the week and the time of day, a spear fisherman, sea kayaker, surfer, boxer, yoga aficionado, burgeoning businessman and, oh yes, a four-time Olympic gold medal-winner seeking to make the U.S. Olympic swimming team for his third straight Summer Games.
Gary Hall Jr., 29, settled last fall on this spit of land famous for retreat and, as the song puts it, wasting away, but he brought along ambition that belies the culture of the Keys. Since November, Hall has been soaking up the area's ethos and using it for fuel. He has siphoned workouts out of playtime and built fitness regimens out of fun in the sun, training with an army of believers in a newly minted professional swimming group called The Race Club.
The club members, an informal assemblage of international swim stars who share Hall's prodigious ambition and at least some of his free spirit, have been rotating in and out of the Keys as the Aug. 13-29 Olympics in Athens approach. They have been living in Hall's house and living out his idea of training nirvana, which in large part involves doing away with the detested long "continuous, tormented training session," as Hall puts it, and jumping in the salt water.
"We're asking people to abandon what they know, their security blanket, and come and try something new," Hall said. "In order to be the best, you have to figure out ways to get better. There is no perfect program. There is no perfect swim. The point of this program is that not one program has it figured out. We're taking bits and pieces of every program. The challenge is the quest for more knowledge."
At various times in the last six months, England's Mark Foster and Sweden's Therese Alshammer have been here. So have Austria's Mirna Jukic, Poland's Bart Kizierowski, South Africa's Roland Schoeman and Puerto Rico's Ricky Busquets. Hall's house, which he described as the cheapest available in the pricey area, has three small bedrooms and one bath and can accommodate three comfortably, six with some discomfort and more than that with a sense of humor on everyone's part. The program, largely conducted at or around a new 50-meter pool at a local park, is part summer camp, part high-intensity training, part Margaritaville. It's not for everyone, which is good, because not everyone is welcome.
Hall, resident coach Jon Olsen and co-founder Dave Arluck open their doors only to swimmers, preferably sprinters, who are extremely accomplished within their own nations. When the athletes are not pushing each other, they are expected to promote the club, its cadre of experienced professionals and the sport itself. Hall envisions a day when swimmers race like boxers box, dueling it out in the pool mano a mano for money. Eventually, Hall hopes The Race Club, created with monies from a swimming fund established by his father -- Olympic swimmer Gary Hall Sr. -- will be self-supporting. To that end, at www.theraceclub.net, T-shirts, baseball caps, tank tops and swim caps with the club logo are for sale.
"It's not every day you can train with the best in the world," said Stavros Michaelides, the Greek record holder in the 50-meter free, shortly before flying to Athens for the Greek Olympic trials. "There have been days in here we have eight guys on the blocks racing each other, talking smack to each other. It's a great atmosphere. . . . It's a perfect situation."
The Race Club is loosely structured, but certain things are sacred. Saturday is race day. Whoever is in town will be going at it, full-bore, against everyone else. Wednesday is a day to take it easy, meaning there is only one short pool workout in the morning before swimmers take on more unorthodox training challenges. A couple of weeks ago, it was not quite 10:30 a.m. when Hall propped himself upside down, balancing on his hands and head, among a circle of swimmers including Venezuelan Olympian Ozzie Quevedo and Canadian Olympian Nadine Rolland -- who also were upside down. With a quivering body, trembling muscles and a reddening face, Hall stood for nearly a minute before contorting his body into another pretzel-like posture during the outdoor yoga class.
Shortly after, he put on boxing gloves and pounded the padded palms of Olsen, until a rather ferocious right hook ripped a pad off Olsen's hand. Boxing has long been part of Hall's workout routine, not to mention his schtick and persona. Hall, who is sponsored by Everlast among other companies, has been known to stalk out to his pool lane before a big race draped in a massive black robe, breaking into a fit of shadow-boxing at the announcement of his name. Hall, however, said the boxing is serious business. He shows how this is so, rotating his trunk to demonstrate the resemblance between his upper body movement when striking a sequence of left and right hooks and the motion he relies on to race up and down the pool.
"Anything we can do to train like a sprinter would in the pool without being in the pool . . . is greatly appreciated by these guys, that's for sure," Olsen said.
Sabir Muhammad, a highly regarded U.S. freestyler who is trying to make his first Olympic team, said The Race Club workouts were among the most enjoyable -- and grueling -- of his career.
"The only thing [Hall] thinks about is that day," said Muhammad, a Stanford graduate. "He'll completely kill himself. I'll be training with him and at the end of the day be saying to myself: Am I going to have to wake up and do this tomorrow?"
That afternoon, it was out to sea for training intended to build lung capacity (sprinters don't take a single breath in the 50-meter sprint race) and leg strength. Armed with metal spears, Hall, Muhammad and a handful of others plunged into water about 30 feet deep three miles off the coast of the Keys, wearing nothing but bathing trunks, masks and flippers. They were off to chase fish for an hour, holding their breath for sometimes two minutes at a time during the dives, looking for two things: exercise and dinner. Unfortunately, only the former was in great supply. The water was murky and fish elusive, but it really didn't matter much.
"You don't get that psychological breakdown," Muhammad said, "when you're chasing big fish around the ocean."
Hall's only catch was a nine-pound hog snapper, but his legs ached. On another day, the swimmers might have gone kayaking or paddling surfboards against the waves. Hall said he objects to the prevailing notion that, as he put it, he is "an undisciplined madman who doesn't train."
Hall's take: He does things his way, and his way has been supremely successful. At the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, he won two individual silver medals and two team golds. At the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, he won a pair of relay medals, a bronze in the 100 free and a gold in the 50-meter free, finishing in a stunning tie with Anthony Irvin, Hall's training partner at the time.
As his race days approached, Hall baffled his U.S. teammates by missing the occasional practice with no explanation. Though Hall had some legitimate absences because of his diabetes, which had been diagnosed a couple years before those Games, other disappearances were more mysterious. His roommate, Ed Moses -- a notorious hard worker and medal-winning breast stroker from Burke -- was stunned by Hall's apparent nonchalance. Hall's approach was similar during the 1998 world championships in Perth, Australia, according to Olsen, a member of the 1992 and 1996 Olympic teams, and infuriated the coach at that time, Jon Urbanchek.
"We were staying at a hotel by the beach," Olsen said. "Gary would go for periods of four or five days without even going to the pool. He would do workouts like body surfing, playing in the ocean. . . . Some of the coaches were getting upset, thinking he was slacking off, missing practices. But he was getting as much rest as he could and getting his work done in the ocean. He does things a little different but he always does things for a reason."
Over fresh mahi-mahi sandwiches with Muhammad at Mango Mike's, a garishly painted joint a few miles south of The Race Club training site, Hall wrinkled his forehead when told his absences at the Olympics were a source of consternation. He said he simply didn't care to align his training with that of the U.S. Olympic team coaches when his way had worked very well leading up to the Games, thank you very much. Why in the world would he change with a gold medal at stake?
"I've always been more serious than my reputation portrays," said Hall, who wears a wavy mane of hair streaked with blond highlights. "I've always resented my reputation. There are slow learners . . . people who haven't figured out by now that I take what I do very seriously and I'm very good at it."
For two years after the 2000 Summer Games, virtually the only training Hall did, he said, came in the Atlantic Ocean near his Miami Beach home. He swam against the waves, or rode a surfboard, avoiding pools for all but a few weeks in the summers. The time out of the pool, he said, kept him fresh and strong, though he was somewhat forgotten. In Olympic years since 1996, he has ranked second or better in the world in the 50 freestyle or 100 free or both. In non-Olympic years, he has averaged a ranking of 12th.
Now, of course, he is preparing like he means it, though even, when he flies along at high speeds, he sits in a different vehicle than most everyone else.
"I've never seen a swimmer as talented when it comes down to concentration and focus at the main event," Michaelides said. "He's a very strong-minded swimmer."
During a recent weekend, Hall traveled to Indianapolis to compete in the masters U.S. championships, an event that pitted him against almost no elite swimmers (other than his training partner Muhammad) and about 1,500 older guys. He did it partly for kicks, partly to fraternize with swimmers of his generation and partly for a chance to swim in race conditions. He attracted not a word of press coverage while there and competed for the first time his life in an individual medley race, which requires using all four major strokes, even though, as he put it, "It's safe to say I cannot swim anything except freestyle." He was disqualified for doing an illegal turn.
"Some coaches may disagree with [my] philosophy, but they can't argue with my results," he said. "Can you tell me who won the Janet Evans meet [annually held in California] two years ago? I don't think anyone cares, except maybe the person who won."
To Hall, there is no formula for winning, no absolute right way to prepare. Even The Race Club, he said, is all about trial and error. He said the club is as important for what it means to the sport of swimming long term as to what it means to his Olympic career short term.
"It's the athlete having fun who succeeds," Hall said. "Not the other way around."