"It's something that none of us could have truly prepared for," the five-time Olympic gold medalist tells PEOPLE

By Joelle Goldstein
July 24, 2020 11:00 AM
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Nathan Adrian

No one could have ever predicted the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, but Nathan Adrian feels he had a bit of a leg up in terms of preparing for the global health crisis.

Back in January 2019, the Olympic swimmer's life was flipped upside down when he learned that he had testicular cancer.

A year later, another curveball was thrown Adrian's way when the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, which he had been preparing for following his cancer treatment, were postponed amid the ongoing pandemic.

Still, even though the virus was completely unexpected, Adrian, 31, says he felt more prepared for all of its twists and turns thanks to his previous health battle.

"The issue with cancer absolutely prepared me for COVID because it's something that none of us could have truly prepared for," he tells PEOPLE while opening up about partnering with Polo Ralph Lauren to model the brand's One-Year-Out Olympic Collection. "It just hit us straight in the face. Everything that we know or that we're used to has now been shifted by something that is completely out of control, and cancer kind of taught me that."

"2020, all of a sudden [the virus] comes and does it to the entire world," he adds. "I think I was a little bit more prepared for this than maybe a lot of other people."

Nathan Adrian in the hospital

Adrian, a five-time Olympic gold medalist, believes his perspective on making the best of a situation also mirrors that of Ralph Lauren's.

The fashion company launched a capsule collection on July 23 to raise money for the Team USA Fund, which financially supports Olympic athletes as they endure another year of training. Adrian is one of the athletes who is sponsored by the brand.

"It comes back to the Ralph Lauren support for the Team USA Fund," he shares. "It's like, 'Well, what can we do? The Olympics are postponed.' "

"We're going to try to do something to help support Team USA and our Olympic hopefuls and people that are trying to train to win medals," he continues. "Versus just being like, 'Oh, man,' and sitting around and feeling sad for ourselves because we all are having to shelter in place and deal with this virus."

Nathan Adrian
| Credit: David J. Phillip/AP

With another year to go before he can officially compete in the pool again, Adrian — who is currently based in the Bay Area with wife Hallie Ivester — has had to be mindful of his health while training since he is considered high-risk for COVID-19.

"It is a scary time right now. I've always been sort of a borderline germophobe anyway and used to wear masks on airplanes to go to Olympic trials, so this kind of comes naturally to me," says Adrian, who now gets frequent scans and check-ups to monitor his health. "It is a stress, but it's okay."

"We've been managing it appropriately, doing our absolute best, doing the whole 'get groceries delivered' thing, trying not to be out in public too much," he continues. "My wife and I and our family are taking it pretty much as seriously as anyone could."

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The Olympic swimmer also says he's looking forward to seeing how the change in his training routine, brought on by the pandemic, will impact his performance in summer 2021.

"It's tricky," he explains. "We are training less, in terms of time in the water, but I think swimmers specifically have had the tendency to be over-trained in the past. So this might actually be an amazing opportunity to shift the paradigm of what training is and what training should be."

"I think we're going to be surprised with some of the results that happen from this situation," Adrian adds. "Instead of getting reps and reps ... we only have very limited training time and the ability to be in wherever we are training, so it has to be really, really high-quality stuff that I think could make a pretty big difference when it comes to actually competing."

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