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Olympic Sports
Kelli Anderson
August 28, 2006
Water Power
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August 28, 2006

Olympic Sports

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Water Power

Led by breaststroker Brendan Hansen, a formidable U.S. team showed off its depth at the Pan Pacific Championships

If everyone would cooperate, the trading of world records and international titles between U.S. breaststroker Brendan Hansen and his Japanese rival, Kosuke Kitajima, would make a great story line going into the Beijing Olympics. One small problem: Hansen doesn't intend to let Kitajima, who bested him in both the 100- and 200-meter breaststrokes in Athens, beat him again. "I don't know how much of a rivalry it's going to be," Hansen said between sessions of torching Kitajima and all other comers in the breaststroke events at the Pan Pacific Championships in Victoria, B.C., last week, "because I don't plan on letting him get anywhere close to me again."

Though Hansen's prerace jitters caused him to rush his stroke in the 100, he won the gold last Friday in 59.90, .49 of a second ahead of Brenton Rickard of Australia, one second ahead of Kitajima and .77 off one of the two world records he set at the nationals in Irvine, Calif., three weeks ago. On Sunday, Hansen topped his record-setting time in the 200, winning in 2:08.50, .24 of a second under his previous best and 2.37 seconds ahead of Kitajima. "I did it right, and everything clicked," Hansen said. "At the 150 I was like, See ya, I'm gone."

Hansen's decisive wins were just two of a number of notable swims by a deep U.S. squad, which set four other world records in Victoria. Michael Phelps broke his own three-year-old marks in the 200 butterfly (1:53.80) and the 200 individual medley (1:55.84). Aaron Peirsol broke his own record in the 200 backstroke in 1:54.44, a particularly impressive feat given that two months ago he strained his right shoulder in a friendly arm-wrestling match and couldn't train with both arms for a month. The men's 4�100-freestyle relay team of Phelps, Neil Walker, Cullen Jones and Jason Lezak swam a time of 3:12.46, returning to the U.S. a world record that had been held for the last six years by Australia and then South Africa. Said Phelps, "It's going to take a lot for us to give it up."

Hansen, 25, shares that mentality. He traces the start of his rivalry with the 23-year-old Kitajima to the 2003 world championships in Barcelona, at which the latter set world records in the 100 and 200 with Hansen in the lane next to him. Inspired, Hansen ratcheted up his training and broke both of Kitajima's records at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials, becoming the first American to hold both breaststroke marks since John Hencken in 1974. But Kitajima won the two events in Athens. His victory in the 100 was controversial; Peirsol, Hansen's former University of Texas teammate, protested that Kitajima had used a then illegal dolphin kick at the start, but the victory stood. "At the finish [Kitajima] let out an unbelievable scream," recalls Hansen. "I told myself, Just soak it in. I walked away from Athens with a huge chip on my shoulder."

At the worlds in Montreal last year, Hansen beat Kitajima in the 100 and won another gold in the 200, an event for which Kitajima had failed to make the Japanese team. In Victoria it was all Hansen again. "I want to put up times that make other guys say, There's no way I can compete with that," he says.

Aside from huge paddles that move a lot of water--he is just 6 feet but has size 131/2 feet and hands that measure 11 inches from the base of his palm to the tip of his middle finger--Hansen's biggest advantage over his competitors is his work ethic. "His kick is not among the top 30," says his coach, Eddie Reese, "but if any of those 30 swimmers worked out with him for a month, they'd go into retirement."

Unlike fellow U.S. world-record holders Peirsol, Phelps and Ian Crocker, who get pushed by each other or other teammates, Hansen doesn't have much company at the top of the American breaststroke heap. Instead of working out with other breaststrokers in Austin, he tries to keep up with the backstrokers. "I don't want to look back on anything and say, Could I have worked harder?" he says. "I see a lot of unused talent in this world, and I don't want to be one of those people."

Nor does he want to see talents go undiscovered. The Havertown, Pa., native recently took up the guitar and plans to take welding and photography classes at a community college this fall. "I really want to try photography," he says. "I've been to all these beautiful places, and I have nothing to show for it."

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