A New Appreciation for the Specialist

By Tito Morales

LOS ANGELES, Calif., Aug. 14. IN this unprecedented age of versatility, it is refreshing to see that the swimmer who made the biggest impact at the recent 2006 ConocoPhillips USA Swimming National Championships was a specialist, Brendan Hansen.

It seems that ever since Natalie Coughlin and Michael Phelps burst upon the scene, there has been a shift in focus to the renaissance swimmer. The biggest accolades in recent years have been heaped upon those who flaunt the most diverse repertoire. Kaitlin Sandeno, Ryan Lochte, Katie Hoff – they, along with Phelps and Coughlin, can mount the blocks with apparent ease in just about any stroke, and at any distance, and pretty much turn heads.

Ours has become the era of the aquatic pentathlete, but there’s something incredibly noble about the man who uncovers his true strength, and then steadfastly sets about maximizing it from one year to the next.

Brendan Hansen is like the classical pianist who keeps rehearsing the same two sonatas, not because he’s incapable of playing any other pieces but because he yearns to see how far he can elevate his mastery. He’s like the uncelebrated archeologist who spends an entire lifetime uncovering a single excavation site, and he’s like the champion boxer who refuses to move up or down in weight class, despite the promise of greater riches, because he’s convinced that no matter how much success he’s already found there’s always the promise of so much more.

The beauty isn’t in the razzle-dazzle; it’s in the inspiring level of discipline.

Between the lanelines, Hansen’s strength and grace are disguised beneath the surface of the water. He moves across the pool as if he was the centerpiece of an elaborate magician’s trick. It seems improbable, in fact, that anyone can cover so much ground so quickly without the use of splashing limbs. One can’t help but strain to see where, in fact, all the pulleys and wires are hidden.

When Hansen mills about either before or after a race, however, it’s evident from a glance where his power comes from. With his physique, he looks for all the world to have emerged from the pages of a DC comic book. Factor in his humble demeanor and his uncanny sportsmanship – he refused to engage the media in Athens when he fell victim to some dubious officiating – and one wonders whether he’s an all-grown-up, modern-day Jack Armstrong.

To be sure, though, Hansen’s has not been an easy road. Four years before the controversy of Greece, he missed making the 2000 U.S. Olympic team by the slimmest of margins. If nothing else, the guy epitomizes resilience.

Hansen approaches his two events as if they’re the only ones on earth. His level of proficiency with what many consider to be the most confounding of strokes is uncanny. Far from wearying of such a narrow pursuit, he actually appears, over time, to be growing more and more impassioned about his specialty.

The payback for such unflagging focus? Ownership of a fresh pair of world records, earning the title of world champion, and raising the bar to such unprecedented heights that he is nearly swimming in a pool all his own. When Hansen set the world record in the 200-meter breaststroke on Aug. 5, for instance, his split for the opening 100 meters was 1:01.58 – a time that would have earned him fifth place in the finals of the 100-meter breaststroke held just days before.

Quite simply, Hansen has come to rule the breaststroke, and his fiefdom is such that it’s doubtful that the likes of Phelps or Lochte, two of the most well-rounded swimmers in history, will be crossing his moat anytime soon to challenge his supremacy. They both know better.

Hansen recently earned USA Today’s U.S. Olympic Athlete of the Week. Given the level of his swimming in Irvine, though, I, personally, would have forgone both the “U.S.” and “Olympic” part of the announcement and simply honored him as the World Athlete of the Week. What more, after all, could he have possibly done?

You’ll never hear Hansen himself complain about such semantics, however, he’s no doubt already back at work trying even harder to improve upon his breaststroke.

So here’s to a specialist’s specialist. May he continue to find the success that he so richly deserves.

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