“I thought I was grown up,” said Peirsol, who turns 29 next month. “I got awayfrom swimming, and I realized I had some growing up to do.”
But even when it’s pulled off at the right time, a departure can leave a void. Peirsol will be back at the Olympics this summer, sitting in the stands.
“It’ll be emotional for me,” he said, “just because it meant so much to me.”
‘Is this a stupid idea?’
Late in 2010, just as he passed two years without swimming, Hansen started thinking about what he had left behind, about what was left undone. Even with his two gold medals from the medley relays in ’04 and ’08, the Olympics had been wholly unsatisfying.
Martha, a former Texas swimmer whom Hansen had dated since college and who he married in May 2010, asked him, simply: “Are you going to regret this when you’re 40 years old?”
“Yeah, probably,” Hansen replied.
“Well, I don’t want to live with that guy,” Martha said, according to Brendan. “So get your ass in the water.”
Thus, on Jan. 7, 2011 — a date clearly stamped in his mind — Hansen scheduled a lunch with Reese. His first question: “Is this a stupid idea?” Reese looked at his student, fitter than he had ever been, refreshed in a way he had never been.
“It was an easy, ‘Yes,’ to let him do it,” Reese said.
They made a deal that Hansen would quietly begin training with the Texas team, and the two would have another conversation in a month. That second discussion was not necessary.
Hansen swam fast when he got in the pool. He has gotten faster still. And he has done so, those around him said, on his own terms. The questions he posed in his own mind, on that starting block in Beijing, are gone.
“He’s back because he wants to be back,” Peirsol said. “He came back with the idea that, if it works, it works. The irony is that he’ll probably end up doing better with that idea than, ‘I sure as hell better win.’ ”
He will be in the pool Monday in Omaha, in the same arena which brought him so much misery four years ago, for the 100 breaststroke. He believes it will feel like a different place because his attitude is so different.
“I almost feel like he’s younger now than he was in 2008,” Martha Hansen said. “He has a more juvenile spirit now, a healthier outlook.”
What that will yield, he does not know. He hasn’t matched the 2012 times put up by Eric Shanteau, who owns the American records in both breaststroke events, marks Hansen once held. He believes that does not matter.
“I’m really going to kind of stop and enjoy the roses and really enjoy the experience and whatever the outcome is, because I honestly believe that this is all just a dream for me,” Hansen said. “And I’m just going to enjoy the journey, and whatever the outcome is, I’ll deal with that at the end. . . . I’ll just be glad I gave it a try.”
Just giving it a try: It is a child’s thought, a kid’s motivation. And it is a most novel approach at swimming’s highest level.
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