By John Lohn
ATHENS, August 15. PERCHED atop the awards podium, he gazed into the rafters, fixing his eyes on Old Glory. His lips moved to the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. The gold medal around his neck meant everything.
At one time, that scenario was a dream, serving as fuel in the swimming career of Brendan Hansen. This morning, less than 12 hours before the final of the 100 meter breaststroke, that vision is within reach.
By the end of this day, Hansen could own the greatest title of his illustrious career: Olympic champion. He¡¦s traveled to Athens for nothing less.
"The obvious goal is three gold medals," Hansen said recently, from the American training camp at Stanford University. "There is no reason to believe I can't do it."
Hansen's journey to the Olympic Games started seven years ago, when he capped his freshman year at Haverford (Penn.) High School with a state championship in the 100-yard breaststroke. That accomplishment was a warning siren. A phenomenal career awaited.
In the time since, Hansen has systematically established himself as the finest breaststroker on the globe, to the point where no man in history has been faster than the 22-year-old.
A 13-time NCAA champion and four-time medalist in World Championship action, Hansen enters his first Olympiad as the world record-holder in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke events. Now, he's looking to transfer that status into Olympic gold.
Along the way, he'll savor an opportunity afforded a small percentage of athletes. Call it a mix of business and pleasure, with the heavier emphasis on the work aspect of his venture to Greece.
"This is going to be the greatest thing ever," he said. "To wear the Olympic rings, that's the cream of the crop in my sport. It's like going to the Super Bowl or the Stanly Cup. This is the highest you can go."
Hansen's Olympic schedule began early yesterday morning, where he qualified second in the preliminary heats of the 100 breast. For that reason, he bypassed the Opening Ceremony, the kickoff extravaganza that can require athletes to remain on their feet for up to five hours.
Good strategy. Last night he clocked an Olympic record 1:00.01 to enter tonight's final as the top seed.
Hey, there's no room for error, not during an event that for most is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If Hansen's week unfolds according to plan, he'll swim seven times between his breaststroke events and his contribution to the United States 400-meter medley relay.
After his athletic endeavors, there will be plenty of time to see the sights, mingle in the Olympic Village and enjoy the pomp and circumstance of the Closing Ceremony. Undoubtedly, Hansen has his priorities in order.
"It's so sweet to represent the United States," said Hansen, who will celebrate his 23rd birthday today, the night of the 100 breast final. "I can't begin to talk about the adrenaline this brings. I'm definitely riding a wave. But I have to look at this like any other meet. Afterward, I'll look back and take everything in."
In 2000, fresh out of high school, Hansen traveled to the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis as the youthful threat to land a berth to the Sydney Games. What Hansen found was heartache, in the form of a pair of third-place finishes.
During the ensuing years, those near-miss swims powered Hansen to the top of his sport, where he landed last month in Long Beach, Calif., site of the 2004 Trials.
There was little doubt whether Hansen would secure bids to Athens. Yet, his victorious times were startling, and redefined the breaststroke events.
En route to a clocking of 59.30 in the 100 breast, Hansen shaved nearly half a second from the previous world record, held by Japan's Kosuke Kitajima (59.78). Three days later, Hansen again obliterated a Kitajima standard, as his 2:09.04 effort slashed the former mark of 2:09.42.
The game plan employed in Long Beach will be followed in Athens. "The way I approached Trials was just to swim fast," Hansen said. "I'll approach the Olympics the same way. I'm not looking for a specific time. I'm just looking for first place. It's realistic. It's always been there."
While Hansen timed his training perfectly for the Olympic Trials, his preparation for the Games has been equally impressive. In workout sessions, he has repeatedly uncorked sizzling times, leaving little doubt that he'll be unable to match his performances from Long Beach.
Like he did in Trials, Hansen is expected to boast the necessary speed for the 100 breast, before shifting gears for the 200 breast, a demanding four-lap event that relies on a combination of speed and endurance.
That Hansen has produced quality workout times is hardly a shock, what with the United States men continually pushing one another during training sessions.
"This is the best team we have had since 1976," said coach Eddie Reese, who guided Hansen during his collegiate career at the University of Texas. "We have great balance and they take care of one another. This is the greatest opportunity of their life at this moment."
Thanks to his world-record swims, Hansen is the favorite for gold in both breaststroke disciplines, a distinction he stole from Kitajima, who captured a pair of world titles last summer.
Kitajima, though, is expected to be a major factor in Athens, perhaps the only man capable of derailing the Hansen Express. Sure, two Brits, Darren Mew and James Gibson, enter competition with strong resumes. Still, the battle for breaststroke gold is viewed as a two-man race.
Hansen, always in search of motivation, has adopted a chasing mentality, rather than consider himself the hunted.
"I know I'm going to be in a dog fight," Hansen said. "Nothing is going to be handed to me. I'm pretending I'm the underdog. I love that role, and I'm sure there are people out there who think I can't get this done. Emotion goes a long way."
With his family in Athens and a worldwide audience tuned to the 28th Olympiad, Brendan Hansen is ready to tackle the most significant event of his career.