Commentary

Hansen gets another shot at gold

Updated: June 27, 2012, 4:52 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- Martha Hansen met her husband when they were freshmen and fellow swimmers at the University of Texas -- 12 years ago now -- and not surprisingly, she knows exactly how to tell when he's had a good day at the office.

"The first thing I look at, before I look at the time, is his reaction at the end of his race," she said early Tuesday evening, a couple of hours before Brendan Hansen crouched over the starting block in Lane 4 for the 100-meter breaststroke final at the Olympic trials.

"No emotion is good. Emotion like last night [in a semifinal] is really good, when you get a little fist pump or a little smile when he looks up at the time."

Tuesday night, Hansen turned his back to the touchpad and gazed at the digital display that has been alternately kind and cruel to him for so many years, his expression blank. The crowd at the CenturyLink Center was going nuts. He wasn't. Several seconds passed. Still nothing.

[+] EnlargeBrendan Hansen and Eric Shanteau
AP Photo/David J. PhillipBrendan Hansen, left, and Eric Shanteau finished 1-2 in the men's 100-meter breaststroke final Tuesday to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team.

Finally, a broad smile spread across Hansen's face and his blue eyes lit up with pleasure. For the second straight night, he was the only man to finish the race in under a minute. His time of 59.68 seconds didn't break the Olympic trials record he set four years ago when he was miserable, swimming out of obligation rather than passion. But it was enough to put him on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team and give him another shot at the individual gold medal that has eluded him for so long.

This time, Hansen is trying to view that monolith as a manageable molehill.

"I think you've got to take it step by step, and making the team was obviously the first goal," said Hansen, 30, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Havertown. "This is my third time, and it doesn't get any easier. I think that now, looking on to London, I think that I've learned over the last two Olympics that you don't have to move mountains to win a gold medal, you've just got to put your hand on the wall first.

"As the athlete, when you get there and you're looking at the event, you're like, 'OK, just swim fast. Just do the same thing you did when you were 7 years old on the school grounds, racing the kid next to you.'"

Simpler would be better for Hansen, who has set world records and collected multiple Olympic and world championship medals but is remembered in swimming circles as much for heartbreak as success. If you added up the fractions that have kept Hansen off the top step of the podium or out of the medals or events he wanted to race altogether, the elapsed time would be a few eye blinks, not much longer than it took him to absorb his finish Tuesday night.

In a strange twist, Hansen's longtime nemesis -- Kosuke Kitajima of Japan, who has swept both breaststroke events at the past two Olympics -- was at the pool watching the race because he trains with the USC-based post-graduate Trojan Swim Club that is here en masse. Hansen didn't think that was particularly appropriate at a national event, but used it as fuel.

"Yeah, I saw him the second day I was here," Hansen said. "I went over to him and made it as awkward as I possibly could, gave him a big ol' hug, and he was like, 'What are you doing?' and I was like, 'Hey, how are you? Hey, your English is gettin' good.' We have always had a very good relationship.

"At the end of the day, when he gets on the blocks, he has to know that the only guy that's beaten him in the last 10 years is me."

It would have been hard to imagine those fighting words coming out of Hansen's mouth four years ago this August after he finished fourth in the 100 in Beijing. He wept so hard in the warm-down pool that he had to take off his goggles and empty them more than once.

Hansen viewed swimming as a bad investment at that point -- years of training and excruciating stress that had never yielded the anticipated return. He decided to cut his losses and all but severed his connection with the sport. Yet he never quite dried off. Hansen began entering triathlons in his longtime residence of Austin. By 2010, he was more than dabbling with pool training.

"I fell in love with competing again, and found myself swimming a little bit more here and there and found myself at lunch with [longtime University of Texas and club coach] Eddie Reese, and all of a sudden we were coming up with a plan," Hansen said.

It wasn't quite that easy. His older brother Sean, a coach and former competitive swimmer, recalled his pain in Beijing all too clearly and urged him to reconsider. "I'm not back to get hurt," Brendan told him. In the end, he has said it was Martha, a composed, articulate sixth-grade math teacher, who encouraged him to cast his line into the water again rather than cut bait because she didn't want him to look back with regret.

"I knew he wasn't done swimming, but he definitely needed a break," Martha said. "Taking a step back helped him find his love for the sport again. He says that I pushed him, but he was going that way. He's finally doing something for himself."

Hansen, whose public persona tends toward the stoic, said he was more relieved than happy Tuesday. But once he was on the snazzy podium that rises out of the pool deck, he elected to go with the flow and hammed it up, initially kneeling "like a WWF wrestler," then flashing "Hook 'Em Horns" signs at the delighted crowd of 12,000-plus.

He threw his winner's bouquet into the crowd on the way out. It's someone else's turn to be the bridesmaid.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.

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