“I’m looking at the other end of the pool in the final of the 100 breaststroke and going, ‘Am I really still doing this?’ ” Hansen said. “Am I really still swimming? Still? At 27?”
The athletes who gather this week in Omaha for the U.S. Olympic swimming trials may talk about training methods and tapers, nutrition and nerves. But in their most honest moments, they talk, too, about the forces that ate at Hansen for so long. At some point long ago, each of these women and men jumped into a pool for the first time as girls and boys to have fun, kids splashing about. And at some point, after having devoted so much of their lives to swimming, many of them want nothing more to do with it.
Take Hansen, in 2008, after Beijing.
“I wanted to get as far away from the pool as possible,” he said. “I felt like I had been cheated. I felt like I worked really hard and never saw the benefits of it.”
Hansen turns 31 this summer, and in pools from Omaha to London, where the Olympics begin next month, there will be tears of joy and heartbreak. Yet the tidy interpretations of those emotions — of overwhelming satisfaction from a victory, crippling devastation from a defeat — don’t begin to explain the complicated relationships many athletes have with their sports.
Swimmers are only a subset, Hansen maybe this year’s best example. They have given so much, with no guarantees as to what they’ll get back. They endure early-morning workouts, miss weddings and birthday parties, delay marriages and parenthood, hit the pause button on the rest of their lives for years — and for what?
After the 2008 Olympics, Hansen walked out.
“Those things add up after a while, and you’re like, ‘Dude, life is passing me by while I’m staring at a black line on the bottom of the pool,’ ” Hansen said. “That just didn’t feel right anymore.”
Yet here he is, trying to make his third Olympic team, the sport of swimming front and center in his life again. Yes, he took two years completely off. Yes, he became a triathlete. Yes, he worked for a start-up company, a regular job. And yes, he got married. But the pull of the pool, for someone who had known nothing else for two decades, somehow sucked him in again.
“Whatever’s going on in my life, I feel like if I swim,” Hansen said, “I can kind of center myself and be at my best.”
Centering himself means something different from what it once did, because Hansen's career, to this point, is defined by a lack of return on his investments. He set world records in the 100- and 200-meter breaststrokes at the 2004 Olympic trials. Given that precedent, his performance at the Athens Games — silver in the 100, bronze in the 200, with slower times in each event, and a gold in the medley relay — was viewed in some corners as a failure.