Ex-record holder Hansen displays ultimate class after Trials setback
OMAHA, Neb. -- Had any swimmer been awaiting this Olympic season with more impatience than Brendan Hansen? Ever since he won the 200 breaststroke in world-record time at the 2004 Olympic Trials, Hansen had considered that record, that race, "his baby." Six months after his rival Kosuke Kitajima of Japan had beaten him for 200 and the 100 breaststroke gold medals in Athens, Hansen was back in the pool, gunning for Beijing.
When he heard that Kitajima had broken his 200 world record by nearly a second last month, he was overwhelmed by a fresh surge of competitiveness. "I was the guy with the target on his chest three weeks ago," Hansen said last week. "Now he breaks the record and he's got the target on his chest. I'm a good hunter, that's what I do."
Hansen's rivalry with Kitajima is perhaps the fiercest international rivalry in swimming. About 20 journalists from Japan, where Hansen is far more famous than Michael Phelps, are in Omaha this week specifically to track his progress and gauge his mindset. Unlike most of the top swimmers in Omaha, Hansen, who won the 100 breaststroke on Monday, didn't have any homegrown rivals. Outside of Phelps, there really wasn't a surer bet to make the men's team in his best event.
But Hansen didn't. After leading for three lengths of the 200 breaststroke on Thursday night, he faded badly down the stretch, finishing in fourth place in 2:11.37, almost three seconds off his American record. Beating him out for spots on the team were two of his training partners at Texas, 20-year-old Scott Spann and 24-year-old Eric Shanteau.
Hansen congratulated his conquerors, pulled himself out of the pool, and then, out of sight of the crowd, put on one of the finest performance of the meet. Hansen could have blown off the media and escaped to the practice pool to wallow in sorrow and disappointment. But he didn't. He stepped to the mike and gave a moving, gracious accounting of the results. "Part of me won tonight because I taught those guys everything I know for the last six or eight months," he said of Spann and Shanteau. "So I know I did my job; maybe I should be more of a coach than a swimmer.
"Both those guys kind of sat on my hip the whole way. It couldn't have been a better race for them. Because they are both backend swimmers, and I got out front, I brought them out with me, and then they both ran me down in the last 50. I knew it when I touched the wall. I said to Scott, 'You little sonofabitch.' But that happens."
Hansen, who had come in third in both breaststroke events at the Trials in 2000, knew Spann and Shanteau had suffered Olympic disappointment, too. Shanteau had come in third in both IMs and didn't even made the finals in the 200 breaststroke at the 2004 Olympic Trials. After Spann took third in the 100 breaststroke on Monday night, Hansen had said -- more prophetically than he could have imagined -- "That was me in 2000. He's the kind of kid that's going to come back; you're going to hear from him again, I guarantee it."
Spann credits Hansen's generous spirit, in part, for his quick rebound. "A lot of workouts, I'll pull him aside and say, 'Hey Brendan, can you watch my underwater pullout?'" said Spann. "He'd keep helping me and helping me, he's such a nice guy. He helped with my stroke and my technique and he'd give me the energy I needed to complete a hard workout. Finally toward the end, just joking, he said, 'I'm going to wait until after Trials to help you out any more.'"
Though it's under different circumstances than Hansen expected, that time has arrived. "I'm going to show these guys what they need to do to beat (Kitajima)," said Hansen. "Because if I can't do it, I'm going to make sure that they do."