By John Lohn
HAVERFORD, Penn., November 4. HE was mobbed by autograph seekers and honored through a video presentation. There was plenty of applause, and a handful of whistles from the females in the audience.
In true rock-star fashion, Brendan Hansen returned to his alma mater last week, just the beginning of a red-carpet day for the Olympic triple-medalist.
It’s been over two months since Hansen ventured to Athens and exited the 28th Olympiad with a rainbow of medals. His life has been a whirlwind during the ensuing days, packed with photo shoots, speaking engagements and, of course, swimming.
Yet Hansen found time recently to give back, a characteristic that has defined him over the years, as much as the talent that has made him the globe’s fastest breaststroker.
So, at 9 a.m., Hansen entered the main lobby at Haverford High ready to roll. He shook some hands, doled out some hugs and prepared himself for a lengthy day that began with a 45-minute ceremony in the auditorium.
"You come back because you want (the students) to realize that I was in the same place they are not too long ago," said Hansen, a 2000 graduate. "I was just a regular guy, but if you work hard enough you can accomplish your dreams."
Hansen’s agenda was loaded. Following his morning stint at Haverford High, he shuffled over to Haverford Middle School for a similar appearance. At night, he was in the high-school cafeteria, scribbling his John Hancock for a two-hour period. For a finale, the 23-year-old was honored at halftime of the Radnor-Haverford football game.
On a day when Hansen provided motivation and fulfilled the dreams of many youngsters with an autograph or handshake, the Havertown community proved something: It loves its Olympic champion.
"He’s such an inspiration," said Nicholas Rotoli, the principal at Haverford High. "When he was in the halls as a student, you knew he was an unbelievable athlete. But he never got an attitude. He was just a Havertown kid, a gentle and humble person."
The morning kicked off with a video presentation recapping the events of the summer, when Hansen rocketed to the top of the swimming world as the fastest man in the history of the 100- and 200-meter breaststrokes.
As Hansen stood to the right of the movie screen, he watched footage of a glorious two-month stretch. There were highlights of his record-breaking swims in Long Beach, Calif., site of the United States Olympic Trials.
There was tape of his efforts in Athens, where he claimed silver (100 breast) and bronze (200 breast) in his individual forays and gold as a member of the American 400-meter medley relay. The presentation opened with a high-school yearbook photo.
Scattered throughout the video were oohs and ahs, applause and a general appreciation for what Hansen accomplished over the summer. Then, it was time for the University of Texas product to take the microphone.
"It’s great to see someone like that," said Kyle Wertman, a member of the Haverford football team. "Coming from a little high school, it says a lot. You would always see him in the paper. We were all rooting for him. It shows you have a chance to accomplish anything."
Hansen spoke for roughly 20 minutes, following his speech with a question-and-answer session that ran the gamut from serious to playful. For every "How much do you train?," there was "Do you have a girlfriend?"
Ultimately, Hansen’s message stood out. By now, his story is familiar. He was the 18-year-old who narrowly missed the 2000 Olympic Team, but rebounded four years later, en route to becoming the first Delco athlete to win three medals in a single Olympics.
These days, he’s a professional athlete, sponsored by Nike and focused on the future, including a trip to Beijing for the next Olympiad. Hansen used his tale as motivation for the assembly of 11th and 12th graders.
"In 2000, I was sitting on the pool deck and asked myself, ‘What am I going to do?’" he said. "The times when things don’t go your way and you fail, that’s when you find out who you are.
"Never limit or put boundaries on yourself. And never let someone tell you that you can’t do something. Proving them wrong is the best high. You have to believe in yourself. You can’t win every day or every race. I came away from the Olympics wanting more and I’m working for 2008. When things don’t go your way, let it fire you up."
Three weeks removed from capturing four titles at the World Short-Course Swimming Championships in Indianapolis, a feat unmatched by any other male, Hansen has significantly slowed his training schedule. He’s in the pool about twice a week and won’t return to Austin, Texas, until the end of the month, just in time to make settlement on a new home.
In the meantime, Hansen has continued to inspire. In the water, he’s as good as it gets. As his appearances Friday will attest, he’s darn good on land, too.