By John Lohn
HAVERFORD, Penn., August 6. SOME asked for autographs. Others preferred a picture. A handful of individuals just wanted a handshake. What was unanimous was this: Brendan Hansen was the main attraction.
As the Daily Times sponsored its sixth Elite Meet — the summer championship of Delaware County swimming — Hansen held center stage last night, serving as the main topic of conversation for the sizable crowd at Karakung Swim Club.
Less than two weeks ago, Hansen boarded a plane out of Barcelona, Spain with a three-medal haul from the 10th edition of the World Swimming Championships.
He was the silver medalist in the 100-meter breaststroke, an honor accompanied by an American record. He was the bronze medalist in the 200 breaststroke. He claimed a gold medal — and a piece of a world record — as a member of the United States’ 400-meter medley relay.
As a result, the Haverford High School graduate was the focal point of the evening, his status as a world-class athlete hardly overlooked. Yet, in his eyes, there was nothing special about his presence.
"I don’t really look at this as giving back," said Hansen, who spent his summers competing at Karakung.
"This was something I wanted to do. I’m just visiting a place where I grew up."
Adept in the water, Hansen is equally skilled in the management of his fame, growing at a constant rate. Besieged from the second he wandered through the pool’s entryway, Hansen simply flashed a deckside smile, taking time to scribble his name for young and old.
It’s a familiar routine, customary territory for an athlete rated among the globe’s elite breaststrokers. He’s signed his Hancock thousands of times. He’ll sign it a thousand more, always understanding that it is — basically — a responsibility.
"When I was a little kid, I remember looking up to the older guys," said Hansen, entering his senior year at the University of Texas. "If I have the chance to make a kid happy, that’s great. It’s neat to see a little kid get excited. That used to be me."
In a sport not considered mainstream, Hansen has captured the attention of the Delaware County sports community. Let’s face it: Delco has an appreciation of greatness.
Hansen, certainly, falls into that category, his resume serving as support. He’s a 10-time NCAA champion and two-time national champion. He’s the finest breaststroker in America. He’s a legitimate contender for Olympic gold.
"When we started this thing, the fact that guys like (Hansen) competed, that’s what made it," said Bill Myers, co-founder of the Elite Meet, along with Mike Kernicky. "He’s had a lot to do with the success of this meet.
"He’s been brought up right. He’s terrific with the little kids, signing autographs and posing for pictures. You don’t see that in a lot of athletes. He’s just a great kid."
Admittedly, Hansen is worn down. The balancing act of school and intense training has temporarily taken its toll. For that reason, the 21-year-old is savoring every moment of his stay in Havertown.
For a brief period — until he returns to school — he’s returned to the typical lifestyle of a 20-something guy. He’s eating home-cooked meals. He’s hanging out with friends. He’s taking it easy, cognizant of what awaits.
In just a few weeks, Hansen will return to his double-duty world and embark on a 10-month journey toward Long Beach, Calif., the site of the United States Olympic Trials. Ultimately, Hansen is chasing a plane ticket to Athens.
"It’s been great," said Hansen of his down time. "My mom is pampering me and I’ve had a chance to catch up with a lot of people. It’s nice to enjoy life and relax a little bit. It’s nice being a normal guy.
"When I get back to school, everything starts again. I’m happy with how things went at the World Championships, but you’re never your best. I know I can accomplish more, and that’s keeping me motivated. These next 10 months are as important as it gets. The Olympics are my No. 1 goal."
A member of two NCAA championship squads at Texas, Hansen recently decided against the enticing option of turning professional. Instead, the money will wait, allowing Hansen one more season of collegiate eligibility.
Really, what’s another year of amateur status? "It crossed my mind," Hansen said of the professional ranks. "I had a lot of talks about it, but I’m happy with how everything worked out. One day, I’ll hit the European circuit and have the chance to see new countries, but I can wait for that. For me, it’s never been about the money. I just love the sport."
So, at Texas, Hansen will continue his chase of Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima, the world-record holder in the 100 and 200 breaststroke events and the reigning world champion in each discipline. Whole-heartedly, Hansen is confident he can close the gap on his rival.
He has a year to accomplish the mission.
"I don’t think (Kitajima) has as much motivation as I do," Hansen said. "I was the guy he beat. I was the guy who watched him pass me. That’s in my mind. I’m the one with the motivation. I don’t know if it’s in my genes, but I love chasing people down."
Last night, it was Hansen who was chased. He was caught every time, an autograph the price of his success.
He didn’t seem to mind.