Two-time Olympian Brendan Hansen went to his old pool at the University of Texas Saturday. He wanted to talk to his old coaches, see his old teammates, and, most of all, get back in the water after having taken a year off.
But he just couldn’t do it.
Hansen, 28, decided to extend his swimming sabbatical indefinitely after the brief return to his longtime training home. He said Tuesday he would continue to ponder a run for the 2012 Summer Games, but would not swim competitively in 2010 — a non-Olympic, non-world championship year whose competitive highlight will be the Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine, Calif., in August.
“It just doesn’t seem that exciting to me to get back in,” Hansen, 28, said. “Maybe I’m on the Gary Hall program, where I only show up at the Olympics.”
Hansen’s decision is surprising considering the drive and determination he showed in preparation for the 2004 and 2008 Summer Games, but it also seems increasingly characteristic of the crowd of older swimmers that now populates the U.S. team.
In the tradition of retired Olympic star Gary Hall Jr., who became known for surfing, spear-fishing and public speaking in between winning Olympic gold medals, plenty of top Americans are taking breaks between the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Summer Games.
Eleven-time Olympic medal winner Natalie Coughlin skipped this past season and is “dancing with the stars” on the popular show; five-time Olympian Dara Torres will miss months of training, as has been her custom, while dealing with various surgeries; and other star Americans such as Great Falls’s Kate Ziegler sat out large portions of the past year.
“If I am going to go for the 2012 Olympics, how I want to approach it is where I’m not burned out by the time I get there,” Hansen said. “For me, it’s not going with my gut. My gut wants to get back in and train really hard and all that other stuff. But I want to make sure by the time the Olympics come about, I’m ready to go.”
The re-emergence of established stars like Hansen in 2012 could make for an extremely interesting Olympic Trials that summer, when the old veterans find themselves face-to-face with youngsters who have reaped the benefits of a recently and dramatically beefed-up USA Swimming national youth team program.
For the moment, however, Hansen isn’t worried about the competition catching up; he’s much more focused on taking care of himself.
He learned in the past year that the average person does not wake up every morning with sore shoulders and aching hips. He believes his two personally disappointing Olympic experiences were due in part to over-training and burnout. Despite being the world-record holder, at the time, in the three individual Olympic events in which he competed, he managed only a silver medal (100-meter breaststroke, 2004), bronze (200 breast, 2004) and fourth-place finish (100 breast, 2008).
The only swimming he has done since Beijing? Freestyle laps with an Austin-based triathlon training group, T3. Looking to stay aerobically fit and athletically challenged, Hansen decided to take up triathlons and has loved the change in routine. The varied exercise program, he said, has put him in the best shape of his life, though not nearly in world-class swimming shape.
He is in the pool four days a week, but doesn’t venture near the University of Texas, fearing he would be a distraction to his former teammates – Aaron Peirsol, Eric Shanteau and others laboring under coaches Eddie Reese and Kris Kubik.
“I don’t want to be anywhere near the UT guys,” he said. “I’ve got my own goals, things I want to do.”
In his first triathlon, the Aug. 2 Jack’s Generic Triathlon in New Braunfels, Tex., Hansen finished an impressive 38th overall. He was first in the 500-meter swim, 77th in the 13.8-mile bike portion and 47th in the run.
Not that he figures he has a serious future in the sport. The triathlons, he said, are a way for him to stay fit and busy while he continues to adjust to life outside the pool. Hansen’s primary occupation is working full-time for PureSport, a two-year-old company that markets performance sports drinks developed by a University of Texas scientist.
“It’s definitely been a learning experience,” Hansen said. “I may fall down four or five times a day, but at least I’m learning a lot about business at a start-up company.”
And he’s also learning he can survive without competitive swimming. He said he watched just one race at the recent world championships in Rome, the 100 butterfly showdown between Michael Phelps and Milorad Cavic. And though the idea of returning to old textile suits per pending rule changes appeals to him, Hansen wasn’t sufficiently swayed to return.
The fact is, he said, he likes his new life a lot.
“I don’t really need swimming like some swimmers think they need swimming,” Hansen said. “I don’t want to be just Brendan Hansen, the swimmer.”
Of course, he hasn’t ruled out being Brendan Hansen, the swimmer, again in August of 2012.
“As soon as I hear the Olympic theme, as soon as NBC starts running those commercials,” Hansen said, “that switch is going to turn on.”
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