Derby Glory to Olympic Gold

How Fusaichi Pegasus inspired Gary Hall Jr. to beat the odds

It was 1999, and Gary Hall Jr. had come away from his first Olympic Games just three years prior in Atlanta. There, he fought past a fierce roster of competitors to claim two individual Silver Medals and two relay Gold Medals, coupled with his role in helping set the world record in both the 400-meter freestyle and medley relays.

The glory of the Olympic podium was now a fog, a memory that threatened to remain only in the past and quite possibly never be achieved again. He was just 24 years old, in his prime, and had just been handed a devastating diagnosis: Type I Diabetes. It was a cruel blow, a gut punch that left him reeling and uncertain about the future he had imagined for himself. No world-class athlete had ever re-surfaced to claim Olympic Gold after such a diagnosis. And world-class athlete he was — it was more than his destiny, it was in his breeding.

“Type I Diabetes turned out to be way more than a life curve ball. It changed my perspective and made stepping back on the Olympic podium in 2000 and 2004 that much sweeter. I had incredible people behind me, and there was this horse that inspired me to make the most of what life had dealt.”
— Gary Hall Jr., 10-Time Olympic Medalist

“My father is Gary Hall Sr., a three-time Olympian,” Hall says fondly. “My dad carried the flag for the United States in the Opening Ceremonies of the 1976 Olympics. My mother and father met at a swimming meet, they had 6 children and we all swam. So, you might say, there’s chlorine in the bloodline.” Perhaps it was his deep-rooted history in the world of competitive swimming that intensifed the blow of his diagnosis. “Shock doesn’t even begin to describe it,” says Hall. “One minute you’re in your prime, and the next you’re being told to change course, that you’ll never compete again.”

In true Hall fashion he trudged on, not taking “no” for an answer and looking for a medical team with the same never-say-quit attitude. He found that in Dr. Anne Peters, Director of the USC Clinical Diabetes Program. “She’s tenacious,” says Hall. “She knew I wanted to take a different path and prove that I could be an elite level athlete with managed Type I Diabetes.” With the support of Dr. Peters and Olympic Swim Coach Mike Bottom, Hall began a new course; a path that would change the way athletes not only live with Diabetes but thrive with it. While Dr. Peters and Hall mapped a course, Olympic Swim Coach Mike Bottom was set on a radical change of his own. “One day we walked out on the pool deck at UC Berkeley where we were training, and there were tubs of this supplement,” remembers Hall. “That was back in 2000, just ahead of the Olympics in Sydney. I still wasn’t where I needed to be to have a chance at a gold medal. But I remember Mike explaining to us that no athlete will reach their potential without the right nutrition. You get out what you put in.” The team’s diet had just taken an about-face but perhaps an even greater shock was how Mike Bottom had come across their new nutrition regimen.

Gary Hall Jr. competes in the Olympic Trials in 2000, winning the race, qualifying for the Olympics and breaking a 10-year-old American record.

"Strength, conditioning, recovery and nutrition — all of these things come together to make an elite athlete."

“Mike said he had met a veterinarian — an equine surgeon — Dr. Doug Herthel, who had taken an entirely new approach to nutrition in elite level equine athletes,” recalls Hall. “As an Olympic athlete, you see a lot of parallels with elite horses in the comprehensive approach that both of us take to unlock our potential.” As it were, Dr. Herthel had transferred the successful results he had seen in equine patients into a line of nutritional formulas for high-level human athletes.

Mike Bottom truly redefined the training process, incorporating strength training, endurance, sports psychology and a finely tuned nutritional regimen into the US Olympic Team’s daily life. “We were some of the top athletes in the world, and we were eating fast food before he and Dr. Herthel got a hold of us,” says Hall. From then on, Hall and his teammates relied on a carefully crafted diet, including Platinum Performance® Wellness Formula and Platinum Bars®. “I’d eat a bar before I trained, and I found that by giving my body positive nutrition, it responded,” he says. “We were fascinated — a bunch of guys in their early 20s were actually interested in what omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants do to our cells, let alone our ability to perform and recover.”

Still new to their nutritional protocol, the team was bolstered by the success of another highly respected athlete, this time the Kentucky Derby long shot Fusaichi Pegasus. “FuPeg,” as the stallion is affectionately known, was a client of Dr. Herthel’s with a surprising similarity to Hall. “He had experienced issues with lameness as a young horse and was looked upon by many to not have much of a future in racing,” says Hall. “There were a lot of people that doubted him, and you can say that struck a cord with me. Come Derby day, our whole team was around the TV to watch that race. It was neat for us as swimmers to be in the same category as this incredible equine athlete that had rehabilitated and was now on a very similar regimen of Platinum Performance® products as we were.”

Quite the race it turned out to be. Fusaichi Pegasus was catapulted into the international spotlight after the stallion ended the 2000 Kentucky Derby in the winner’s circle with the famed collar of red roses hanging triumphantly from around his neck. “He won in outstanding fashion. It was this incredible come from behind victory in the home stretch,” remembers Hall fondly. “What struck us is that there is no placebo affect with horses, so we knew that we were on the right track if this horse could outperform the others even though he had come back from injury. That win really gave us a lot of confidence that we carried with us to the Olympic podium in Sydney.”

Just a few short months after Fusaichi Pegasus claimed Derby victory, the US Olympic Swim Team, flanked by coach Mike Bottom, stepped off the plane in Sydney and into their fiercest fight yet. A fight they met head on and conquered. “At the 2000 Olympics, I tied my training partner and my friend and teammate, Anthony Ervin, for the Gold Medal,” says Hall, smiling at the memory. “It all came down to the finish. The finish is the bi-product of how well you’ve positioned yourself, a reflection of the hard work, commitment, coaching, nutrition, determination and a lot more hard work that went into it,” he says.

“We got a call at four in the morning from Mike Bottom and he said ‘We won, and we got two Golds,’ ” says Mark Herthel, President of Platinum Performance® and son of founder Dr. Doug Herthel. “I said to him ‘How can you get two Golds when there was only one race?’ And he said ‘Gary and Anthony tied for Gold.’ We all lived that victory with him,” says Herthel. "The media picked up the fact that the US Olympic Swim Team was using the same nutrition as the Kentucky Derby winner and suddenly what, back then, was a little company was now in Sports Illustrated, on CNN, in the Washington Post. It was wild.”

“Strength, conditioning, recovery and nutrition — all of these things come together to make an elite athlete,” says Hall, who went on to successfully defend his title of “World’s Fastest Swimmer” by again winning the 50-meter freestyle in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

Career Highlights Gary Hall Jr.

    • 3-Time Olympian — 1996 Atlanta Games, 2000 Sydney Games & 2004 Athens Games
    • Former World Record-Holder
    • Won 10 Olympic Medals — 5 Gold, 3 Silver & 2 Bronze
    • US Olympic Hall of Fame inductee

“Addressing nutrition turned out to be a critical component. The margins are so small that one one-hundredth of a second determined the cumulative margin of victory in two Olympic races I won,” he says. With 10 Olympic Medals — 6 of which were claimed after his diagnosis — Hall transitioned to a life out of the pool, away from the spotlight and now centered on diabetes research. He threw himself wholly into advancing the cause and championing national support. “It took a team of committed people alongside me to get to the top and beat the expectations,” he says, “and not everyone has that advantage.”

Today, Hall remains an active diabetes advocate, serving on the Aspen Institute’s Sport & Society Advisory Group, the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute Leadership Board, T1D Exchange Advisory Council and has an initiative with the American College of Sports Medicine to provide recommendations to healthcare professionals addressing diabetes management in sport and physical activity.

He was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame in 2012, a proud moment shared with coach Mike Bottom and family. Now, a husband and father of two, he’s happy to be on the deck rather than in the pool, supporting the next generation of swimming superstars to follow in his footsteps.

"Type I Diabetes turned out to be way more than a life curve ball,” says Hall. “It changed my perspective and made stepping back on the Olympic podium in 2000 and 2004 that much sweeter. I had to fight to get there, I had incredible people behind me, and there was this horse that inspired me to make the most of what life had dealt and reestablish the boundaries of potential for myself and others."

Fusaichi Pegasus crosses the finish line for the victory.