Brendan Hansen Taking Sabbatical

Feature by John Lohn, Swimming World Senior Writer

CRANBURY, New Jersey, January 30. HE claims he'll be back in the pool one day, likely when the Olympic fever hits again. It's a difficult bug to cure, especially for someone who has twice participated in the most famous five-ring circus. At least for the next year, however, Brendan Hansen plans to stay dry.

No trip to Rome for this summer's World Championships. No early-morning practices, followed by a second in the afternoon or early evening. No mandatory trips to the gym. After nearly two decades of year-round dedication, Hansen has opted to take a break from his storied swimming career. For once, he is not shackled by water.

The Haverford High School product didn't arrive at his decision easily, the final call not coming until just after the New Year. But the four-time Olympic medalist is at peace with his sabbatical, aware that if he is to resume his career as planned, he needs this overdue break. And he needs it badly.

"After the (Beijing) Olympics, I promised myself that I would take four to six months to decompress and then I would make a decision in terms of what was next," Hansen said. "I was torn at first, but I started to think of something Charlie Kennedy told me when I was training under him at Suburban (Swim Center). He always talked about the importance of having a balance in life."

So, Hansen laid out all the pros and cons of taking a break from a sport that has been the focal part of his life since he was a 9-year-old. Did anything drive him for 2009? If he did take a break, what activities would fill the day? Those were just two questions that entered his mind. It wasn't until he took a trip to Florida that he gained clarity over his situation.

With his brother Sean, the head coach at The Haverford School, taking his team to the Sunshine State for a training trip just after Christmas, Hansen accompanied the Fords and had the chance to do some thinking. He also had the opportunity to confide in his sibling, his best friend and someone who could help him sort through the countless thoughts running through his mind.

By the time Hansen returned to his Austin, Texas home, where he's resided since touching up a brilliant collegiate career at the University of Texas, he was confident it was time for a break.

There was some hesitation, particularly over finding a job in a rough economy. Ultimately, a flip turn in careers seemed necessary.

"Sean has always been there for me," Hansen said. "We talked about a lot of things. For the first time, I realized I wasn't as excited about the upcoming year as I was about the last one. That was the clue that I wouldn't be able to give 100 percent, and I won't do something 80 percent. That's not me. After I recharge, I'll be able to give everything again. All the time, you hear people say, ‘I wish I had a few more hours in the day.' Well, I just got back three to five hours every day."

Hansen will be the first to admit that his summer of 2008 didn't go as planned. While he won the 100 breaststroke at the United States Trials in Omaha, Neb., a fourth-place finish in the 200 breast was a startling upset. Then came Beijing, where Hansen placed fourth in the 100 breast, finishing just off the podium as Japan's Kosuke Kitajima repeated as gold medalist and broke Hansen's world record in the process.

His second Olympiad, which followed a three-medal haul in Athens four years earlier, did end on a high note. Swimming the breaststroke leg on the American 400 medley relay, Hansen helped the U.S. lower its world record and was part of history as Michael Phelps collected his eighth gold medal.

The 27-year-old wasn't all that shocked that he was not in peak form in Beijing. Before arriving in China, Hansen didn't have the pop that was the trademark of his world-record performances from 2004-2006. It was a difficult circumstance to accept, especially with the amount of work that had gone into his Beijing preparation. He recognized that the lack of a break after the Athens Games had caught up to him.

"I knew I was burned out before the Olympics," he said. "I should have taken a break after Athens. Everyone else did and they were refreshed. I was just so determined to get right back at it and start working again. That ended up hurting. After the prelims of the 100 breast, I knew it wasn't there like it normally is. And I knew it was going to be a long eight days. But you know what, you learn from things like that. I'm taking this break now, and I'm not going to make the same mistake I did four years ago."

A member of the National Team since 2001, Hansen's decision to take a year off leaves a major void for USA Swimming to fill. How else can one describe the absence of a man who, in addition to four Olympic medals, is a 13-time medalist at the World Championships, a five-time world-record setter and the only American to break one minute in the 100 breast?

For Hansen, he has gained the freedom to wake up and set his own schedule, not follow the demands of others. One morning, he might pack his rod and reel and go fishing. Another, he might do some buck hunting. Oh, and he's pretty excited about a new job that will keep him close to swimming.

As a partner in PureSport, an energy drink that was a big hit in Beijing, Hansen will handle a number of roles for the company. He's acting as a spokesman for the drink's recovery powers and is also contacting collegiate and club coaches around the country, trying to convince them that PureSport can be advantageous for their athletes.

"This is such a huge thing for him," Sean Hansen said. "He deserves this time. Since he was nine, he's been training 11/12 months every year. He's in such a good place right now. I know he's excited about having some free time and the chance to do more family things. He's the type who is going to stay in shape and when he decides it's time to come back, it won't take him long to get back in form."

When Hansen decides to return to the pool is a mystery. Unless there's a major change in his thought process, he won't race in 2009. He plans to map out his future in September, weighing the positives of his new job with the hunger that burns for competition. Come 2010, if he indeed puts the suit back on, he'll design a schedule that gradually allows him to regain form.

There's no reason to believe a year's hiatus will prevent Hansen from again etching himself as one of the top names in his sport. Just look at Dara Torres, the 41-year-old who won three silver medals in Beijing. A five-time Olympian, Torres has twice returned from seven-year layoffs, only to set American records.

"Having time away can be a good thing," Torres said. "As you get older, the body hurts a little more and it takes more time to recover. But mentally, you feel refreshed. You don't feel burned out, like you don't want to do this anymore."

As much as Hansen is looking forward to this next year, he can't help but glance at the future. That's how he's wired, always planning his next move. Never satisfied with what he's accomplished, there's always room for more.

"There's no urgency right now, but I expect to be at the 2012 Olympics in London," he said. "Even though I've been there twice, I still have that Olympic dream. Going to World Champs, that doesn't drive me anymore. The Olympics are it for our sport. We'll get about two years out from London and the hype will start to build. I'll feel the excitement and it will grab me hook, line and sinker."

For now, fishing will do.

Article first appeared in the Delco Times.