Brendan Hansen & Ed Moses: The Comeback…Kids?

Feature by Tyler Remmel

PHOENIX, Arizona, August 16. IT’s not news to say that there have been quite a few top-caliber swimmers making a comeback in the past 10 months. On any sort of short list, you can’t even count the number of those comebacks on one hand.

You could argue that Dara Torres preluded the trend by four years with her stellar 2008 performances, but this isn’t about who did it first. Why are all these comebacks so popular, and why now?

The top comeback headlines at this year’s USA Swimming National Championships surrounded breaststrokers Brendan Hansen and Ed Moses. Their stories give a good idea of why the 2012 Olympics are looking like they could be dubbed as the year of the comebacks and “old folks.”

Brendan Hansen is Back On Top
The start of Brendan Hansen’s comeback was far from what you might expect.

“It was a really weird chain of events that took place, with none of us really having a say in it at all,” he said. “It just happened.”

Hansen was coaching on a training trip in Florida last December with his brother when he wasn’t satisfied with the intensity of a set. Instead of trying to tell the kids how to do it, he decided to just get in and show them.

“I got in the water and started doing the set and I felt really good after practice,” he said. “I thought, ‘You know what? I’m here, I might as well just keep doing it.'”

He stayed in the water through the rest of that week. When he got back to his home in Austin, Texas, after the trip, he called Texas coach Eddie Reese and asked if he could swim with the UT team “for a few weeks.”

“I figured – if nothing else – that it would put me in really good shape for the triathlon season,” Hansen said.

During his retirement stint, Hansen was a regular on the triathlon circuit. It gave him a chance to stay fit and fulfill his competitive drive. What really bound him to the triathlons was the pain they caused.

“I know it sounds crazy, but I wanted to find something that hurt more than a 200 breaststroke,” he said. “I think I found it.”

Taking the swimming on a week-to-week and month-to-month basis, the early stages of Hansen’s comeback were more like a series of stepping-stones than anything else. He didn’t begin with any aspirations, and that’s one of the reasons why he has been so successful so quickly.

“All the signs in 2008 that told me to stop were all there telling me now, very strongly, that I needed to stay,” he said. “They were the complete opposite signs.”

Those signs that led to his retirement included things like not wanting to go to morning workouts (and not going altogether), and getting to meets and not caring about what kind of time came up on the clock.

When he left in 2008, Hansen said that all these things were taking a mental toll, and he was feeling the effects constantly.

“I left the sport not having any inclination whatsoever that I was not coming back,” he said

For having such strong feelings about the absence of a future in swimming back then, it’s quite a turnaround to where he is now. Hansen says that his biggest strength now is the knowledge of where he came from. He’s on a mental peak, loving how much he loves the sport again.

“I’m about as excited as I was as an 18-year-old freshman at Texas – 10 years ago,” he said.

And even though he’s happy now, he has no regrets. He left at the right time, and he knows that leaving was the only way he was ever going to get his passion for swimming back – even though that wasn’t the intention at all.

Swimming is all about mentality, and there aren’t many people that will tell you otherwise. Retiring and then coming back may seem to some like a counterproductive idea, but it’s a great way to take a mental break. Sometimes, those two or three weeks at the end of a season aren’t enough to recuperate completely. Sometimes, the head just needs more time than the body. And while it certainly wasn’t intended, in hindsight, it’s sort of like Hansen’s brain tricked itself into thinking that he was quitting.

He had completely moved on. And that must be the best way to recover from the stresses that this sport puts on you. He’s just carefree.

“Now [when I go to a meet], I don’t have any expectations,” he said. “All the stuff I used to dwell on and worry about at practice and during taper [like not feeling good in the water] doesn’t matter to me at all anymore.”

Everything from here on out is a bonus. He’s watching an encore presentation of “The Brendan Hansen Experience,” and he got into the showing for free. There’s no stress anymore for Hansen. Everything that he accomplishes is all about fun.

Hansen isn’t afraid to share his brutally honest advice, either.

“This sport needs to be fun,” he said. “If it isn’t, you need to stop, and that’s what I did.”

Hansen contends that a lot has changed in the sport since he left. Every day in practice, he gets help from the other Texas breaststrokers with new drills or techniques that weren’t around back then. In the earlier part of his career, Hansen was the one who was approached with questions about how to go faster. The tables have turned now, and he’s now the one getting advice.

When it comes down to it, Hansen is still getting it done, too. Two fresh national championships in hand, as well as a world top-10 time in the 100 breaststroke, he’s already accomplishing his goals and moving on to new ones.

It wasn’t even until March that he set goals – and that was just because he knew that he couldn’t keep practicing without any. So, he told himself that he was going to swim at a Grand Prix meet and then long course nationals. That was it. No times, no places, he just set the goal of swimming in a pair of meets to see how he was doing.

Going into nationals, his goal wasn’t on winning national titles. He was focused on the big picture, wanting to post times that would be amongst the best in the world. He wanted to post times that would have been in close competition with times from the World Championships. He got that done.

The next step is to get back to the top. The super-competitive Hansen wants nothing more than to win another Olympic title. But that will have to wait until next summer.

Ed Moses Has Traded His Clubs for a Suit
It’s amazing how quickly Hansen has been able to get in his top form again. And not to discredit competitor Ed Moses at all, but Hansen’s two-year retirement must have a much different effect on the body than the five years that Moses has taken off.

That said, Moses thinks he is in a good place one year out from Trials.

He said, “I’m pretty stoked that I’m doing so well after only nine months in the water.”

Moses’ comeback was more planned than Hansen’s; it had to be. Moses’ retirement was official (in terms of the paperwork that needs to be filed with FINA in order to formally retire), whereas Hansen’s was not. In terms of coming back, this meant that Moses needed to observe the nine-month window to clear whatever formalities FINA has. During that period, he was also unable to participate in any major competitions.

That only limited his competition in USA Swimming competition, though, so he went on the Masters circuit and competed there. He submitted the required FINA paperwork around Thanksgiving of last year, so that he would be cleared by August 1 and would be able to compete at long course nationals.

During his retirement, Moses refused to even get in the pool. He ended his former career on the same terms as Hansen did, without the slightest urge to come back. (It’s funny how those kinds of things turn out.) He was gone so long that normal things like the feel of the water and the feel of rest and taper were foreign concepts to him now. It was about as close to starting from scratch as a formerly world-class swimmer can get.

Even though Moses missed the entire tech-suit era in the sport, he insists that not much in the sport has changed since he left. When comparing breaststroke times now on the world-class scale to the breaststroke times before 2005, they’re very close. And that’s precisely the reason that Moses decided that coming back to the sport was the right thing to do.

Citing Hansen’s 2:10 in the 200 breast at Nationals, Moses remembers that Mike Barrowman was going 2:10 in that event 19 years ago. Moses’ times from the early 2000’s would still place well today.

That said, Moses set an early goal of finalling (top 10) at Nationals. While his 16 and T-17 places in the 200 and 100 breaststrokes, respectively, didn’t reach the goal, he remains undeterred.

The next step is going to be re-experiencing a regular high level of competition, discovering new venues and traveling to meets. The World Cup circuit and Grand Prix series will likely be the meets that satisfy those needs.

“I’m going to put myself out there,” he said.

He’ll be busy, but that’s nothing he’s not used to now. Even though he was living out his dreams in his retirement, he was busy most of the time – between starting his own production company and trying to make it on the PGA Tour, that is.

“The only reason I left [golf temporarily] is because this swim thing fell in my lap,” he said.

After moving to Florida and joining the prestigious Bay Hill Golf Club, Moses was improving rapidly at the game of golf. He went to tour school, played in U.S. Open qualifying tournaments, and even played on the Hooters tour. Whereas before it would seem that Moses was retiring from swimming to play golf, now it’s like he’s quitting golf temporarily to swim.

It should be no surprise that getting back in the pool and training on a regular basis has been hard. Moses has been training with the elite breaststroke corps at USC that includes names like Eric Shanteau, Kosuke Kitajima, Mike Alexandrov, Rebecca Soni, and Jessica Hardy. Moses said that for a while, his goal was just to hang with the female breaststrokers in that group.

“It’s a shot to my pride to get my [butt] kicked every day,” he said. “I was used to being the fastest, I was used to winning every set and every repeat.”

Joining that USC squad wasn’t really much of a choice for him, either. Much like the “swimming thing,” the team at USC also just sort of fell into his lap. Moses was living in Los Angeles working on his production company, and he knew that he couldn’t get up and move to train with a team. It was perfect; one of the top breaststroke groups in the world is only about 15 minutes from his home.

His friendship with Ryan Lochte also has been helping the comeback. Moses says that he’s tried to fuel his own passion watching Lochte’s improvement and successes.

“I feel like he is exactly what I used to be and is exactly what I want to be again,” he said. “Loving the sport of swimming, dropping time; everything that you would want.”

The focus with everything has – and will remain – oriented around enjoying the sport. He doesn’t want to be chasing the clock, stressing about time. Moses is back to enjoy the sport as much as he did in the past, before he retired. He knows, too, that everything is all about this next year leading up to the Trials. Fun swimming is fast swimming. It all comes back to those five words, no matter what swimmer you talk to.

Always being honest, he said, “I need to find ways to feed my ego and just get good.”

He doesn’t put his future aspirations in terms of “hope,” but rather in terms of “will.” Moses throws out the fact that if he makes the Olympic team next year, he will be the second-oldest male to do so since 1924. He just happens to know that.

He has interesting ideas as to why so many formerly retired swimmers are making comebacks leading up to these 2012 Olympics. While he doesn’t have the answer any more than anyone else, he theorizes that it might have to do with the new training styles that are now being used.

Gone are the days when every program pounded yardage until swimmers’ bodies broke down. It’s easier to swim at an older age now because it’s just easier on the body to be able to do low-yardage, more technique- and power-oriented workouts.

There are still the disadvantages of swimming at an old age, though. Things like having a family, and needing to have a job to support that family. He’s fortunate to not have to worry about any of that, but that’s not the case for everyone making these comebacks. Money isn’t thrown around in swimming like it is in other sports, and it’s not any easier for an older swimmer to get sponsorships than it is for anyone else.

“Some of these people [coming back] are just putting their lives on hold,” he said. “For what, I don’t know.”

“What makes these 2012 Olympics any different than any other year?”

Age will certainly be one of the major story lines for those major competitions next year. And it won’t be until those meets that the success of these comebacks will be assessed fully. If nothing else, seeing all these old names and faces will certainly add another layer of excitement to the season.