By Duncan Scott
AUSTIN, Texas, December 30. THE end of the year has produced another list of top sports stories prominently including swimming stars, and in this compilation they come out on top in some pretty fast company.
SwimInfo recently reported that it took 12 Olympic medals, 6 gold, from athletes connected with Arizona to reach # 10 on the Arizona Republic list of top ten local sports stories for 2004. Now, in an article on the website of News 8 Austin, Jeff Rhineer puts a trio of Texas Longhorns from Olympic head coach Eddie Reese’s squad on top of the year’s sports stories for central Texas, being named the News 8 Austin Athletes of the Year.
Aaron Piersol, Brendan Hansen and Ian Crocker actually produced fewer (five) gold and overall (nine) medals from Athens than the Arizona swimmers, but perhaps their accomplishments were granted a higher respect because they made world records flow … like water.
Austin’s Lance Armstrong won his sixth consecutive Tour de France, an accomplishment that earned him wire service recognition as world athlete of the year, but in his hometown, where they possibly make a more objective evaluation, he trailed the talented UT trio. The swimmers were even recognized above Texas football, being listed above the Longhorn stars who led Texas to its first ever Rose Bowl.
"This season, Brendan, Ian and Aaron worked harder than they've ever worked, and they sacrificed more than they've ever sacrificed," Longhorns/USA Olympic head coach Eddie Reese said.
The first of four primary meets on the year for the trio – they had multiple world marks in each – was the last college meet for all three. In leading the Longhorns to a third place team finish at the 2004 NCAAs, the threesome all had memorable meets.
Piersol broke his own short course meters world record in the 200 back. Hansen completed four year runs as NCAA champion in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke races.
And all Crocker did was have possibly the most outstanding meet of any male swimmer in the world for 2004, Michael Phelps notwithstanding. He absolutely crushed the world record in his specialty 100 fly, becoming the first, and still only, swimmer under 50 seconds at 49.07, and in the 100 free where he broke a decade old world record of all-time star Alex Popov by a massive margin of nearly ½ second, dropping the record from 46.74 to 46.25.
The trio then joined with freshman Garrett Weber-Gale to break the world mark in the 4 x 100 medley relay. The same foursome missed Germany’s world record in the 4 x 50 medley relay by only 0.12, though they placed second to Auburn’s multi-national foursome. Four world marks in one meet for the terrible trio.
The next major meet was the US Olympic Trials in Long Beach, California. Piersol broke his own long course 200 back record. Hansen broke the world marks for both the 100 and 200 breaststroke. Crocker broke his own 100 butterfly record. Four world records. Four world records that all survived the Athens Olympics.
Then came Athens. They didn’t surpass any of the world marks they set in Long Beach, but then there were those five golds, with two silvers and two bronzes thrown in. Piersol won the 100-200 backstrokes. Hanson won silver in the 100 breaststroke and a bronze in the 200. Crocker won silver in the 100 butterfly and a bronze in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay.
And they didn’t really forget about world records. In a grand finale, they teamed up with Jason Lezak to win gold in the 4-by-100 medley relay in world record time, inspired by a lead-off individual world record in the 100 back leg from Piersol. Two world records in the hottest cauldron of athletic pressure.
"The entire team is so proud of what we've done. We did something spectacular at this meet. Every single one of us swam so well. For us to cap off a meet like this, it just means more than anything in the world," Peirsol said.
"It's nice, after the Olympics are over, to kind of take a deep breath and remember what you've been through over the last four years that have gotten you to that point," Crocker said.
And finally, in a meet that Rhineer didn’t even see fit to mention, the trio towered over the first FINA World Championship ever held in our country, short course meters in a temporary facility inside Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana in October.
Piersol won 100-200 backstroke world championships, once again surpassing his own 200 world standard. Hansen had no world records. He was simply the only male triple winner (50-100-200 breaststroke) of the meet and was selected as male swimmer of the meet. And Crocker came through with a 50-100 butterfly double, breaking the world mark in the 50 distance, and adding a gold from a prelim swim in the 4 x 100 free relay.
And then they brought the meet to a rousing conclusion, joining again with Lezak to post one more world record medley relay performance. The Texas trio had 11 world championships and three more world records in Indy.
This is just about three Longhorns who began the school year on the varsity. Coach Reese had post-grads – Nate Dusing and Neil Walker – who also won medals in both Athens and Indianapolis.
While their UT days are over, all three of the terrible trio are working to go even faster, looking to Beijing in 2008. Peirsol is now training in California, but Hansen and Crocker continue to live in Austin, swimming with Longhorns Aquatics.
But the trio shone so brightly in 2004 that at least News 8 Austin thought they could legitimately ask, “Lance who?”