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Feature By John Lohn
OMAHA, Nebraska, June 25. FORGET his collection of Olympic medals. Ignore his multiple world-championship titles. Disregard that he was once the premier breaststroker on the planet, a multi-time world-record setter. None of that history matters, especially during a week where Olympic plans are decided in cutthroat fashion.
The comeback of Brendan Hansen is 18 months old, and the University of Texas product is eagerly anticipating his two events at this week's United States Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha, Neb. He is confident his training will allow him to perform at a level which will secure a berth to next month's Olympic Games in London. His mental outlook is clear, too, far from its muddled state of 2008. And, many of the sport's experts see Hansen once again representing Team USA on the international stage.
What Hansen won't do this week, as he contests the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke at the CenturyLink Center, is rely on any past achievements or his reputation. He knows how the game works at Trials: Qualify first or second in your event and you're golden, bound for the Olympics. Anything else is equal to last place.
“I'm working with a blank sheet of paper and it's up to me to write whatever I want on it,” Hansen said. “Everything that happened in my first career doesn't matter. After the 2008 Olympics, I walked away from swimming. No one expected me to be back here. There's a lot of personal satisfaction to climb back and get to where I am. The past 18 months have been a fresh start and I haven't half-assed anything during that time. This is my time to tell a new story.”
It's difficult to ignore what Hansen has accomplished during his career, which has spanned more than a decade at the international level. This is a man, now 30 years old, who has four Olympic medals, has won four world championships and once held the world record in the 100 and 200 breast events.
Yet, in 2008, he left the sport after the Beijing Games, fully convinced he was done. Really, Hansen had checked out before he reached China, burned out from years of training and lacking the desire that was once his trademark. While he won the 100 breaststroke at the Olympic Trials, he placed a surprising fourth in the 200 breast, fading over the final lap.
In Beijing, he was fourth in the 100 breaststroke and won gold as a member of the 400 medley relay, the squad which handed Michael Phelps the record-setting eighth gold medal of his Olympiad. Still, he was going through the motions.
Although Hansen never filed retirement papers after Beijing, he had no intent of making a competitive return. He got into triathlons and dedicated himself to speaking engagements, business ventures and his personal life, which was highlighted by marriage in May 2010.
“In 2008, and this was before I even got to Beijing, I was thinking about the things I was missing,” Hansen said. “My focus wasn't where it needed to be. I was fried. I'd be away at meets and I was thinking about what I could have been doing back home. Honestly, I didn't care.”
So, for two years, Hansen's competitive side — at least related to the pool — went into a dormant state. But as is the case with many world-class athletes, certain switches do not remain in the off position. Gradually, Hansen started to contemplate a return, wondering if he wanted — really wanted — to make a push at one final Olympics.
It was Hansen's wife, Martha, who helped him find the answer. She simply asked her husband if he would harbor any regrets if he didn't return to the starting blocks. By January 2011, Hansen was back in the water, training under Eddie Reese, his mentor at the University of Texas and one of the most-renowned coaches in the world. Together, Hansen and Reese developed a plan that would get Hansen back to elite form, but also respect that he couldn't handle the same grueling workouts from his early 20s.
“I wouldn't be here without Martha by my side,” Hansen said. “From Day One, she has been there with the support I need. One thing I don't have is patience, but she helped me with that and has been positive the whole way. I'm like an 8-year-old right before Christmas. I'm excited for Trials and to be where I am, with a chance to go to London.
“So much of this sport is mental and I'm feeling free and easy. I have nothing to lose and I know I'm going to swim fast.”
Hansen enters the Olympic Trials as the No. 1 seed in the 100 breaststroke and as the No. 2 seed in the 200 breast. He won a pair of titles at last summer's United States Nationals and is pleased with the way his preparation has gone heading to Omaha. More than anything, there is something in Hansen's voice — an eagerness — that was missing four years ago.
As much as Hansen wants a berth to the London Games, the United States needs him to be there. At a time when the breaststroke events in this country lack depth, Hansen could provide a much-needed boost. With Australia threatening the United States' stranglehold on the gold medal in the 400 medley relay, a reliably strong breaststroke leg could make the difference between gold and silver.
Additionally, Hansen's leadership would be more than welcomed on Team USA. A former captain of the U.S. National Team, Hansen has long been respected for his ability to pull the team together and to deliver inspirational talks during team meetings.
“The USA desperately needs Brendan on the team, not necessarily for what he does in the pool, although that is important, but for his leadership out of it,” said Rowdy Gaines, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and the lead Olympic analyst for NBC.
Gaines' sentiment was echoed by Kristy Kowal, a former National Team member with Hansen, Olympic medalist and fellow Pennsylvania.
“Everyone knows what an incredible swimmer he is and he has nothing to prove to anyone,” Kowal said. “Brendan represents everything that is good about the sport of swimming. He's a fierce competitor, a fantastic teammate and as someone who has been through the trials and tribulations of this sport, he is an excellent mentor for up-and-coming swimmers.”
How Hansen performs in Omaha will be determined early in the Olympic Trials. The preliminaries and semifinals of the 100 breaststroke are set for today, the opening day of competition, with the final scheduled for the second night of action. Hansen is confident he'll have an invitation to London.
“I'm excited about the work I've done and the potential I have,” he said. “I've worked on fixing the little mistakes from my races the last few months and everything has been focused on peaking in Omaha. I wouldn't be swimming if I didn't think I could be faster than ever. I know that can happen.”