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U.S. swimmer Nathan Adrian continues comeback after cancer diagnosis

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Nathan Adrian on new life perspective after beating cancer (1:37)

After winning a gold medal at the 2019 World Swimming Championships, U.S. Olympian Nathan Adrian opens up about battling back from testicular cancer. (1:37)

LIMA, Peru -- Nathan Adrian probably doesn't need any more reminders that he should never count himself out.

The American swimmer and decorated Olympian, who is competing in the 2019 Pan American Games this week, anchored the winning 4x100-meter freestyle relay team to an event-record 3:09.06 at last month's FINA World Championships in South Korea. The effort -- his split in the race was 47.08 seconds -- came just seven months after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, for which he has undergone two surgeries. He has been putting his public health degree from Cal to use since the diagnosis, urging anyone who will listen to get screened.

The native of Bremerton, Washington, doubled his career Olympic medal output to eight in Rio three years ago, winning two golds from relay participation and bronzes from the 100 and 50 freestyles. He is scheduled to compete in the latter two events beginning Thursday in Lima, though don't be surprised to see him as part of Tuesday's relays.

Adrian, who is about a month away from his first wedding anniversary, arrives in Peru unfazed by the trip despite the summer's hectic travel schedule, with a new perspective at hand and grateful to be able to compete at a high level. The 30-year-old chatted Monday with ESPN from Lima's VIDENA Aquatic Center about his recovery, his outlook and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

How's your health?

Health is good so far. After my last surgery, I have two years of surveillance. So, so far, so good. My last scan was just before we left for Korea, so it was about a month ago. We swam the world championships there. We'll swim this meet, then I have more scans and more bloodwork in a couple of more months.

What feels different physically in the pool for you, as opposed to before your diagnosis?

I'm working towards it not affecting me at all, but there's just a couple of things that still kind of linger from surgery. They cut through my abdominal wall five times. So like, my abs are kind of little bit off, and I do funny compensation patterns in my squats and my jumps and stuff that I didn't used to do. But we're trying to identify those and eliminate them as quickly as possible.

Given your health challenges, what did winning the gold medal at the Worlds mean to you?

That was just a really beautiful, nice reminder, not only to me but to others out there that maybe getting an injury, get sick right before the meet or whatever, that you really can't count yourself out for any reason. There's a reason why you play the game, right? So that was an important lesson for me to relearn, because I've learned it several times over my career. You kind of go into every race or every opportunity that you have to compete with a fresh slate, right? The score is 0-0, and you have to do what you need to do to compete for gold medals.

"They cut through my abdominal wall five times. So like, my abs are kind of little bit off." U.S. swimmer Nathan Adrian on his physical condition after being treated for testicular cancer

Your Twitter bio says you don't take yourself too seriously; I've seen you swim in syrup. Has that changed any?

I should probably change my bio; I haven't changed it in probably eight years or something. ... My perspective on life has certainly changed. But the way I go about it in day-to-day matter, I try not to change too much. Certainly a little more gratitude. When something like this happens, you appreciate that if you don't have your health, you don't have anything. So it's a good reminder to those out there to go see your doctor. You're not too busy to check on your health, that's for sure.

Where have you drawn inspiration through all this?

There's a lot of different places. I mean, from different swimmers, [two-time American world champion] Eric Shanteau reached out to me, he had gone through testicular cancer himself. Lance Armstrong texted me; he was very gracious to do so. Watching them and how they approached their process to getting back is something that I try to do and I try to do as well as I can. And understanding that it's a journey. ... You can't [say to yourself], "Hey, I'm clear to go get in the water and go back in the weight room. I'm gonna go do a bunch of max squats and then go try to do a bunch of races." It's like, no, that's not how I would've approached a season before a diagnosis like cancer, so it's not how I'm going to approach a season after a diagnosis like cancer.

Have you allowed yourself at all to think about Tokyo?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I think about Tokyo all the time. I mean, USA just got insanely fast this year, which is an awesome, awesome thing. For the 100 freestyle, it's going to take a 47 [seconds], it's going to take what had medaled that other Olympics [in 2016] just to make our relay team. I think that's awesome, but again, that means that we're going to have to be that focused in order to just get yourself on the team next year.

Tell me about your Chinese roots.

My first Olympics was in Beijing [in 2008], which I thought was really cool. My mom actually grew up in Hong Kong. She came over to the United States for college and then met my dad, and then emigrated over here. I have Chinese relatives, so a lot of times we go up to Vancouver, British Columbia, to go visit them for Chinese New Year or just a big celebration. Chinese people will understand that family dinners are a very long affair.

What do those roots mean to you?

I think for me it's just really special to be a combination of things, and be from a place where it's allowed to happen, because it wasn't always allowed to happen. I mean, when my parents first started dating it wasn't legal in all 50 states for interracial couples. So to see how far that has progressed and to see young people that are mixed heritage, whatever that may be -- it doesn't have to be Asian and European, it could be whatever -- but to see that and see how beautiful that the meshing of two cultures can be, it's really special.