By John Lohn
PHILADELPHIA, Penn., USA, July 15. HE had a choice, like the majority of his Olympic teammates. He could ease off the gas and put his high-performance piece of machinery in the garage, only to take it out for the occasional spin. Or, he could slide into the pits, refuel and hit the racetrack for another lap. Brendan Hansen, not surprisingly, went with the second option.
In his mind, that was the only way to go. Since the dawn of his scholastic days at Haverford High (Penn.), Hansen has never let off the accelerator. Forget fifth gear. Hansen operates at sixth and above, levels few individuals understand. In a sport where performance is measured by the clock, the 23-year-old is a speed demon.
Around the swimming world, many of the sport’s top guns have shifted into cruise control during this post-Olympic year. Ian Thorpe, the Australian freestyle ace, is taking a year sabbatical. Ditto for Amanda Beard, a three-time Olympian who is using this year to capitalize — financially — on her ever-growing profile. Others, too, have toned it down. Hansen, though, is a different story.
Had he desired, the University of Texas product could have remained among the elite figures in swimming by simply riding his God-given talent, a mixture of speed and endurance that has made him one of the greatest breaststrokers in history. The Hansen equation, however, is hardly complete without his bulldog work ethic. So, a cavalier approach was never a possibility, not even a cursory consideration.
"That’s not me at all," Hansen said Wednesday night from his home in Austin, Texas. "I don’t work that way. If I’m going to stay in this sport, I’m going to put everything out there. To be honest, I’m motivated by the fact that a lot of people out there aren’t really giving everything they have. If you mellow, you’re not going to get ahead. I feel like this is one of those years where I can take a big step. I’m just going to keep trucking and show everyone that I’m the real deal."
Whether he wants to admit it or not, Hansen has already established real-deal standing, a distinction cemented by world records in the 100 and 200 breast events, a trio of Olympic medals and eight world-championship medals. Yet, that portfolio matters little these days. What does matter is what awaits, namely the World Championships in Montreal.
When the World Champs begin in a little more than a week, Hansen will pursue global titles in three events — two in individual action and one in relay duty. While some of the big-time names in the sport are away, Hansen is hoping to benefit from a mental outlook that sets him apart from the competition. More, he has the motivation of last summer’s Olympic Games.
Upon returning home from Athens, Hansen clutched a rainbow of Olympic medals, a dream scenario for most athletes, but not completely satisfying to a man who desired a gold-medal trifecta. He was also bitten by misfortune, victimized by an illegal maneuver in the final of the 100-meter breast. In Montreal, a measure of revenge is on the line.
Since 2001, Hansen and Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima have built a rivalry that is considered to be one of the finest in swimming. During that four-year span, each man has won multiple world championships and has enjoyed world-record status. Simply put, they have separated themselves significantly from their challengers. Yet, their most well-known moment arrived in Athens.
Going head-to-head in the Olympic final, Kitajima narrowly edged Hansen at the wall. Shortly thereafter, controversy emerged as Kitajima — captured on film — was shown employing an illegal dolphin kick off the start and turn. The propulsion supplied by the kick almost assuredly accounted for Kitajima’s 17-hundredths triumph. Although Hansen took the high road and declined to address the kick, two American teammates — Aaron Peirsol and Jason Lezak — sprinted to Hansen’s defense, calling Kitajima a cheat. Adding to the controversy was Kitajima’s post-race celebration, a scream-filled burst straight out of a Tarzan film.
If nothing else, Hansen has been fueled by the entire event.
"All I remember is his screaming," Hansen said. "Not a day goes by without my thinking of that. I remember hearing it right in my ear, and that’s something I’m going to use for motivation. I was disappointed with how the Olympics worked out. I wanted more than what I got. This summer is a chance for me to have a great meet."
Barring any stunning developments in the preliminaries and semifinals, Hansen and Kitajima will clash in the 100 breast final on the second day of competition. Not only will the matchup rekindle a lofty rivalry, it will provide Hansen the chance at redemption, not that his career will be defined by a single race. Certainly, Hansen is eager for his latest world-championship foray, and proud of the way he has handled the past year.
"So much of racing is mental and I’m feeling really good," he said. "I feel fresh and that’s huge. One of the big things for me is to show kids that it’s not all about talent. It takes a ton of hard work. A lot of people have taken it easy since the Olympics, but I’ve worked my (butt) off."
He wouldn’t have it any other way.