It didn’t work. In the 200 breaststroke at trials, Hansen swam slowly. He was overtaken in the final 25 meters. He didn’t make the team in his best event.
“I’m not sure I still know what happened in that event,” said Eddie Reese, Hansen’s coach at the University of Texas, his coach in 2004 and ’08, his coach now. “Once the gun goes off, a lot of things go through their minds.”
But what about before the gun goes off? Not just seconds prior, but days and weeks and months? This is a topic of discussion for swimmers in those weary moments before the sun rises, or on the weekends given up to their sport, traveling the world but seeing little more than hotel rooms and competition venues.
Then, the big-picture questions — the ones that can leave one of the best swimmers in the world standing on a starting block wondering why he’s still there — creep in.
“He got so caught up in all of it,” said Hansen’s wife, Martha, “he forgot why he swam in the first place.”
‘Why do you play sports?’
This experience is not unique to Hansen. Aaron Peirsol, perhaps the best backstroker in history, trained with Hansen at Texas. For years, including twice at the Olympics, Peirsol led off the best U.S. medley relay team, touched the wall, and Hansen dove in for the second leg. Twice they won gold together. They know all too well the why-do-we-do-this discussions.
“Where, along the way, did you lose the reason you wanted to do your sport to begin with?” Peirsol said. “We talk about it all the time. When you’re a kid, why do you play sports? So you can fall down and get back up. Get tough, get dirty, and play, and you enjoy the process of learning and not being judged and standing back up and doing it again. Then there’s junior Olympics, or school, or Olympic medals that become the goals, and they can detract from the whole reason you began to do it to begin with. . . .
“Everyone’s told that hard work pays off. Not really. If you really like it, you’ll work hard. But if you don’t like it, and you’re being told to work hard, you’re not going to like it. You’re going to resent it.”
This, from a swimmer who won five gold medals and two silvers in his three Olympics, who still owns the world records in the 100- and 200-meter backstrokes, who is younger than Hansen — and who retired even though he could have been a factor in London.
“I stopped because I stopped, man,” Peirsol said. “I’m done.”
Unlike Hansen, Peirsol continued to swim after the 2008 Games. He had a spectacular 2009 season, and seemed headed toward a fourth Olympics.
But at the 2010 U.S. Nationals in Irvine, Calif., he finished second in the 100 backstroke to an upstart, David Plummer. Reese, who also coached Peirsol at Texas and through his pro career, asked him afterward: “What did you feel before that race?”